Every month, Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters around the world (both current grantees and alumni) to get a sense of what life is like in different placements. This month, Parul Srivastava, a 2020-2021 Researcher to the U.S., spoke with Madiha Noor, a 2019-2021 Fulbright Foreign Scholar from Pakistan about her exciting journey to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst U.S.A.
1. What motivated you to apply for the Fulbright program?
A dearth of academic opportunities in the field of Early Childhood Education in Pakistan led me to apply for the Fulbright program which has a reputation for being one of the most prestigious scholarship programs in the world. I always knew that the program would carve a path for me to learn the best techniques practised in the US which is why I first applied for the program in 2014 (made it to the alternate candidate). Devastating as it was, knowing that receiving the Fulbright grant would open a multitude of opportunities for my personal and professional growth, I applied for the program 2 more times. As they say, third time’s the charm!
2. Tell us about the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and what are you studying there?
I am pursuing an M.Ed (Masters in Education) in Child Study and Early Education. The faculty and staff that I have interacted with so far at the College of Education at UMass Amherst have been some of the most helpful, learned and motivating individuals that I have met in my life. The way they value each student’s participation, opinions, experiences and work is truly commendable and has helped me feel completely at home.
UMass Amherst holds a strong position when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion and the institute prides itself on its ‘no tolerance against racial discrimination’ policies which has made my experience in the US extremely pleasant thus far.
3. Could you tell us about your time and experience in the United States and the opportunities that came your way so far?
I grabbed any and every opportunity I got to attend professional development sessions, volunteer, participate in co-curricular and of course explore the country as much as I could. Apart from the quality academics (that are the opposite of a rote-learning/one-size-fits-all system that I have previously been subjected to), being a Fulbright grantee has given me several chances to take part in a cultural exchange that is vital for the program.
I made new friends in the Pakistani Fulbright Cohort of 2019, especially after the Fall Welcome Seminar that was held in Kansas, and made global connections with Fulbright scholars from more than 50 countries present at the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Salt Lake City. I cannot emphasize enough on how grateful I am for these two specific opportunities because I got a chance to indulge in some engaging conversations with talented people from around the world. These opportunities gave me a chance to explore two beautiful states and interact with the local communities.
Along with a few fellow Fulbrighters in Amherst, I founded the UMass Amherst Fulbright Association which became the official Western Massachusetts hub of the Fulbright Association. This allowed us to have an anchoring point to turn to, in times of adversity and it also provides new grantees a space to seek guidance from. Settling in would have been difficult, had it not been for the support I received from my family away from home! The pandemic hindered some of the other opportunities of professional development or academic growth that I was banking on but let’s see what the future holds.
4. How does a typical workday look for you?
I am an early riser so my day always begins somewhere around 8 am after I have my breakfast. On a typical workday (back in the time of normalcy) I tend to get my readings and work done during the day. My classes have mostly been in the afternoon so I use that time to finalise the presentations/assignments required for the day. After class, I either finish pending chores or cook. My coursework for the past two semesters has been intense but because most of it is captivating and not redundant as well as outlined well in advance, it gives me the liberty to plan and schedule ahead of time (that being said, I am a bit of a procrastinator and usually work better under pressure!)
5. How would people react to knowing that you are from Pakistan? What are the few things that you wished people knew about Pakistan?
So far, I have been at the receiving end of positive curiosity from people who haven’t heard of Pakistan or haven’t met any Pakistani before. I always welcome any queries that people have regarding my culture, religion and traditions. The most common mix-up that I face is people assuming I am from India (especially since the Indian graduate student population at UMass is huge). Pakistan is home to many bright minds like Abdus Salam (Theoretical Physicist who is a Nobel Prize recipient), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Qawwal and Ghazal Singer) and Abdul Sattar Edhi (world-renowned Philanthropist) amongst others. We have progressive-minded and ambitious young generations who are fighting for the rights of the oppressed and underserved communities.
I would love people to know that Pakistan is a safe and welcoming country and we take the utmost pride in our hospitality. We are notorious for feeding guests, often more than they can take it! Pakistan is home to a rich culture with strong values, talented artists, breathtaking landscapes and a charitable community. We are also the world’s top exporters of footballs and mangoes amongst many other things!
6. Where are you from and how different is it from Amherst, USA? Tell us a bit about your hometown.
I am from Islamabad, which is the capital of Pakistan. It has been voted as one of the most beautiful capitals of the world! It is quieter than most other metropolitan areas and the serenity and greenery is unmatched. Islamabad has a stunning view of the Margalla Hills, which is a favourite hiking destination for its inhabitants. We also have the Faisal Mosque which is one of the largest mosques in the world. The white architecture of the stunning mosque against the backdrop of the Margalla Hills, especially after a rainy day, is a view that brings peace and joy to all Islamabad residents.
The greenery and serenity of Amherst is very similar to that of Islamabad, except, of course, Amherst is much quieter after 8 pm – which is when things begin buzzing in Islamabad!
7. What were the challenges that you faced in the US and how did you overcome them/ adjust with them?
In all honesty, my settling in was pretty smooth. The initial struggles I faced were pretty minimal and oriented around the use of plastic money everywhere as opposed to using cash more (which is what I was used to back home). One major issue that I have is the rare availability of Halal food (especially when eating out). But overall, I actually wasn’t homesick till about 6 months in. I think a strong network of like-minded international students has helped me navigate through the small day-to-day struggles. Amherst has a very stable public transport system which makes life pretty easy and I was fortunate enough to have settled into the academic requirements of my program with ease. I found so many facilities on and off-campus (libraries!!) that kept my productivity at a maximum.
8. How have you dealt with the ongoing pandemic while being in the USA?
I was on an unexplainable ‘Fulbright high’ for the first six months, till the unfortunate pandemic hit and I was slowed down. The only thing I can say is that I am grateful that I was quarantined in Massachusetts. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen and I could walk to nearby parks to clear my head. Puffers Pond in Amherst became my go-to place for the much-needed breather every now and then. Although, I have been bummed that my Fulbright experience has been greatly hindered by the pandemic but still thankful that I have been in a place where I could take care of myself and get essentials without the fear of too much exposure. Every day has been a different kind of challenge but made it this far, hopefully, the coming semester will help with navigating the anxiety.
9. Why would you urge Pakistanis to apply for the Fulbright program?
I urge Pakistanis to apply for the Fulbright program because it is the most holistic, life-changing experience that provides the chance to grow tremendously as a human being.
Along with quality academics, this is where we get to step out of our bubbles and learn from the outside world, fend for ourselves. While I value the collectivist approach that I have grown up with, I feel that learning to be individualistic can polish our personalities in a different way altogether.
The country is moving towards a progressive approach but there are many who are still held back from education in terms of societal pressures or finances, especially women. The Fulbright is the key opportunity for such individuals to achieve their greatest potential.
If selected, you have a big responsibility to fulfil your academic requirements but also represent your country on a global platform. I urge future applicants to ensure that they have a clear understanding of their goals and aspirations before they take the plunge.
Madiha Noor is a current graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is pursuing a Masters in Education in Early Education and Child Study as a Fulbright Scholar. Back in Pakistan, she has worked as an Early Childhood educator in various capacities for around seven years. After returning to Pakistan, Madiha aspires to devise and conduct teacher preparation programs to ameliorate the quality of instruction in classrooms. Down the road, she intends to craft an early childhood curriculum with a special focus on inclusive classrooms. In Madiha’s free time, she enjoys blogging and photography.