By Tabish Shaikh, Global UGRAD alumna and Fulbright fellow 2015.
Amidst the disturbing events of this decade which are dividing the international community along cultural and religious fault-lines, there is a dire need to highlight some untold stories to emphasize the power of love and friendship – a connection that knows no boundaries. Back in 2013, as a Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (UGRAD) student at Gannon University from Pakistan in the snowiest town in the United States: Erie in Pennsylvania, I got lucky to get to know a few people who took care of me, just like family. That is when I experienced the true power of cross-cultural exchange and most importantly, I experienced why hosting matters.
Chris, the international student advisor at Gannon University helped me settle in as I tried to adapt to my host city.Kathy, who was a faculty member at Gannon University, along with her husband David used to occasionally invite me over for dinner at their home. David used to make my favorite local delicacy – fruit pies, whenever I used to visit them. They introduced me to their extended family and friends and made me feel at home every time I visited them. Our discussions would range from current worldwide issues to personal life gossips. It was truly a home away from home!
I was also lucky to befriend a local lady when she asked me for help to navigate within the university. That was a short meeting but we exchanged email addresses and stayed in contact. And we met every now and then! We volunteered together at the Children’s Art Museum, I attended a teacher’s book club session with her and we went around to have a tour of the city to see the important monuments.
It was amazing to see how much they cared, how they appreciated small gestures of kindness, and how welcoming they were. Their care, love, and warmth made me feel so much at home. We had met for the first time, but I felt so comfortable that it seemed I had been friends with them since long. That’s the thing about Americans – their personality and friendliness make breaking the ice so much easier! Erie soon turned into a place where I felt like home. Within a very short duration, I got so comfortable in a new city and new surroundings that I got lucky enough to be featured in a news article titled ’10 Pakistanis doing great things for America.’
Over these three years, I went back to Pakistan to complete my undergraduate studies and then came back to the United States to pursue Masters in Quantitative and Computational Finance from Georgia Tech as a Fulbright Fellow in 2015. This summer, I went to visit Erie to relive the memories and spend time with my American family. Their love and care this time again was overwhelming. Every little thing they did for me was so perfectly wrapped in selfless love and unbounded affection. From taking out time to pick me up from the airport, giving me a warm welcome at their home, sharing my excitement of having Pakistani food were just a few of the many gestures that just touched my heart. We also went on a memorable road trip across three states from Cleveland to Niagara Falls.
As a Muslim and a Hijabi, being welcomed to an American home just like their own daughter has been something contradictory to what most people around the world would expect. As an international student, this has been the most enriching experience of my life! Friendship and understanding begin with individual action. Peace begins locally!
Hijab* – Muslim headscarf, Hijabi** – A girl who wears the Islamic head-covering