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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Pakistani Student Realizing “Amazing” Learning Experience in America

By Noell Saunders

Pakistani exchange student Hassan Mahmood is proud to say he's fulfilling a dream of visiting the United States, although he was initially fearful of what he would encounter.

Mahmood, a computer software engineering student, is the first in his family to come to the U.S. and attend a university. The opportunity was presented through the U.S. Department of State's Global UGRAD-Pakistan Program, which allows him to spend one semester at Old Dominion University.

The Global UGRAD-Pakistan program is designed to train future leaders from underserved populations across Pakistan. Through academic coursework and mandatory community engagement, both on and off campus, students gain the skills needed to implement long-term civic and economic changes in their communities.

While interacting with Americans in the community and on campus, students develop a well-rounded understanding of American culture. They go on to share their perceptions with friends, family and others back home.

At Old Dominion, Mahmood is currently taking courses in public speaking, introduction to robotics, engineering economics, U.S. history and academic success. He said ODU offers classes that aren't available in his country. With a quality education, he hopes to one day be able to fix some of the problems that put Pakistan behind the curve like utility deficiencies, poverty, high unemployment and educational challenges.

"I work hard to achieve my goals so I can help improve my community," Mahmood said. "I would like to start my own computer software company to provide more jobs."

The Global UGRAD-Pakistan program is one of 900 international programs offered at Old Dominion with options for students to visit 35 countries. The University has about 1,000 students enrolled from over 100 countries and sends 300 students annually to study abroad.

Steve Bell, interim executive director of Old Dominion University's Office of International Programs, noted that researchers, including himself, have found students who travel internationally for study tend to graduate sooner with higher grade point averages.

While studying abroad, students gain a variety of intercultural, personal and oral communication skills. Bell studied in the Middle East and Costa Rica during his college years. He said he is a living testament of how these programs help both international and American students thrive.

"When I was in college, the way I was studying with books and going to classes wasn't working as well as when I got out to see it and explore places. The history came alive for me and was much more tangible and concrete," Bell said. "When I went back home, I realized I had a greater understanding because I had a connection."

Building a connection is exactly what Mahmood wants to do. Growing up in the slums of Lahore was not easy, but he managed to get accepted on a scholarship to the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), the top university in his country. Mahmood was chosen for the Global UGRAD-Pakistan program out of a large pool of students following a rigorous selection process.

"I was so nervous about rejection. I had to give a personal statement, go through a regular interview, take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and then I had a visa interview which would determine my status," he said. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity."

Mahmood credits his family, ODU and his instructors - both here and back home - for his success. He plans to return to America to further his education once undergraduate school is completed.

Given misconceptions between the people of Pakistan and America, Mahmood originally thought his trip wouldn't be fun, but he said it turned out to be one of the best times of his life. Mahmood said the knowledge he gained in a short period of time and new friendships made are forever invaluable.

"We heard there were a lot of extremists in America that didn't like Pakistani people, but my experience has been nothing short of amazing," he said.

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