Midhat Urooj looked up at Bald Mountain. The Sister 2 Sister Exchange Program participant had doubts about climbing the steep incline. After all, the rolling rural Virginia landscape was almost the exact opposite of her hometown of Karachi, the most populated city in Pakistan. She thought about turning back.

“The slope was very high,” she said. “I’m not used to that, but the friends around me said, ‘no, you will do it.’ And finally, when I reached the top, the scene was so beautiful. It’s a gift to see and to experience the view from the top of the mountain.”

This is just one adventure Urooj has experienced since arriving at Virginia Tech through the Sister 2 Sister Exchange Program. The initiative seeks to help prepare young Pakistani women undergraduates from underserved communities for future careers by enabling their participation in summer undergraduate programs at U.S. universities.

In partnership with seven other universities, American University is the lead organization and grantee administering the program. The Society for International Education assists American University with logistics in Pakistan, including outreach, marketing, recruitment, the application process, and international air travel. The Pakistan-based society is a nongovernmental nonprofit, dedicated to development of global partnerships in education, capacity building of learning communities established on the effective use of information communication technology, English, teacher development, and youth leadership for Pakistan and the world. 

This year, the program accepted only 16 participants out of 2,973 applicants. Of those participants, the program accepted Urooj and Hamdah Munir at Virginia Tech, the only university to offer in-person opportunities this year.

“The Sister 2 Sister Exchange Program is a unique public-private partnership model wherein the Department of State covers logistical and administrative costs while partner universities donate scholarships,” said Farida Jalalzai, professor of political science and associate dean of global initiatives and engagement in the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “The program would not be possible without the generous support of partner universities.”

The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences supported the program, Jalalzai noted, despite the challenging times faced by the higher education sector at large.  

“Virginia Tech is one of the partner institutions because of the support of Laura Belmonte, our college dean,” said Jalalzai. “Dr. Belmonte and I were both drawn to this partnership because Sister 2 Sister provides young women in the global South opportunities to help them grow, join the workforce, prepare them for future jobs, and inspire other women and men in their communities. This program aligns with the core mission and values of the university and our college in particular.”

Urooj and Munir received full tuition fees, travel cost, health insurance, accommodations, meals, and visa fees for the six-week summer session. 

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“I’ve always wanted to pursue engineering,” said Munir, a junior at the National University of Science and Technology in Islamabad. “I’ve always loved math, so for my bachelor’s, I wanted to go for something more general. That is why I am majoring in mechanical engineering, to learn the basic mechanics of everything. And then I want to go into a specialized aerospace field, with the ultimate goal of getting a master’s in aerospace engineering.”

This summer, she took a virtual Introduction to Aerospace Engineering course taught by Gary Seidel, an associate professor in the College of Engineering. She also took an in-person class on global ethics taught by Jay Burkette, a doctoral candidate in ASPECT

“He keeps the class so energetic,” Munir said, “and tries to keep everybody’s perspective in mind. Most of the people there are from America, but I’m from Pakistan and he urges me to talk about experiences I have as a Pakistani to help the 12 other students understand my culture and how I think.”

Urooj, a computer science engineering major at the Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi, also plans to get her master’s. She took an in-person course in software design from Mark Manuel, a graduate researcher in the Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science, and an online class in public speaking. She said the latter class helped her learn how to present her ideas to others, an important skill for those in STEM fields. 

She noted several differences in the educational systems of the two universities.

“Here the education system is more automated,” she said. “We have Canvas online and we upload all our homework there. Back at my school, we do most things physically. For example, you write the assignment on paper and then submit it. Here it is easier because you do the assignment on the computer and just click the button to submit it. That is a big difference. Education over here is very good, but the educational experience I get from my university is also very good.”

For the two Sister 2 Sister Exchange Program students who met for the first time when they traveled together to Blacksburg, they both agree that an important element in the study-abroad program is the networking opportunity.  

One of the most memorable moments for Munir was when she had a casual conversation about women in science, technology, engineering, and math with the program’s administrator from American University, Mahveen Azam. 

“I was gushing about being excited about the aerospace program,” Munir said, “and Mahveen says, ‘Oh, I know Sarah Quraishi.’ And I say, ‘I love Dr. Sarah Quraishi.’ She is a big name back home in aerospace and she’s the first person to develop contrail-free aircraft. Mahveen said she could get me in touch with Dr. Quraishi, and that was the moment where I felt this connection. 

“This is when you get to know other amazing women who have worked so hard in their entire fields. And I think this is what it’s about. I’m going to take these courses and I’m going to learn so much from my different friends that I make here. But when I get back home, it doesn’t end there. Instead, you stay connected to these people, and you get help from them and you try to make use of those networks to achieve your goals.”

For Urooj, the networking experience is also personal, and she sees it as an opportunity to grow.

“I always wanted to become a part of a bigger network so I can get more confidence in myself, to express myself,” she said. “After becoming a part of such a big program like Sister 2 Sister, I feel more confident. I’m able to talk more about gender equality because I am getting more exposure to the world. So, I can talk on a bigger perspective. And as I travel in the U.S., I get to explore and experience the pure beauty of diversity. I am meeting with people from different nationalities, religions, beliefs, and races.”

For both, this study-abroad program was their first time in the United States. They plan to take back the many important lessons they learned in classes, and from their new circle of friends. Upon their return to Pakistan, they both want to help other young women find their place in STEM fields. 

“What I want to do in my life is learn a lot, to convey this knowledge, and to contribute to society,” Urooj said. “That is what the meaning of learning is — if you learn something and you’re not able to contribute, it’s a waste. If you learn something, contribute to society so you can make a good impact. I want to establish myself and become an entrepreneur, so I can help my community by establishing a startup. Because if you’re an entrepreneur, you can create opportunities for others.”

Written by Leslie King