When Kalsoom Abdul Razaq and Sabahat Tanveer first set foot on Virginia Tech’s campus in July, they weren’t quite sure what to expect.

The Blue Ridge Mountains looked a lot different than their home in Pakistan. But navigating a new campus full of unfamiliar faces, the pair quickly adapted to life in Blacksburg — all while challenging their minds in new ways.

The two, both microbiology students, emersed themselves in the liberal arts for six weeks through the Sister 2 Sister Exchange Program — a highly-competitive initiative led by American University and the Department of State that connects Pakistani female undergraduates from underserved communities with participating U.S. universities.

The goal of the Sister 2 Sister program is to better prepare students for their future careers. It covers the costs of visa fees, travel, and tuition, as well as necessitates like meals, accommodations, and health insurance.

Razaq and Tanveer were part of Virginia Tech’s Summer Start, a six-week program that offers classes for first-year and transfer students to help them get a jump start on college life ahead of the semester.

The pair said they are grateful for the opportunity to study abroad and to have the support of their families — something they say isn’t common for women in Pakistan. Both hope to use their knowledge and skills to advocate for female education in the country.

Razaq credits her father with being her biggest supporter.

“He is a superhero for me,” she said. “I am the only person from my whole family who is pursuing higher studies and he allowed me. He trusted me to go and to achieve my goals.”

Tanveer’s father, who has passed away, was an English professor and an inspiration to her, she said. Since his passing, her brother has taken on a father-figure role in her life and has become her greatest supporter, she said.

“Being in a family that supports you — it’s a really big thing in Pakistan,” Tanveer said. “It’s unique, because most people do not support the education of their female children.”

After graduation, both hope to secure careers in Pakistan.

“I’m very passionate to work for my nation, to work for women empowerment, and to work for the girls who are behind us who are following us,” Razaq added. “ I want to set an example for them.”

The two heard about the opportunity on social media and met for the first time during the intensive application process. Razaq is in her final year at Muhammad Nawaz Shareef University of Agriculture Multan, while Tanveer is in her third year at Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women University Peshawar. Though they are from different cities in Pakistan, the two said they now share a special bond because of time together in America.

“They made our dreams come true,” Tanveer said of the Sister 2 Sister program. 

While at Virginia Tech, they studied introductory sociology and first-year writing.

“We are pursuing really diverse courses,” Tanveer said. “Two that are very different from our major fields, so it’s a great experience to learn about new things.”

They found sociology to be particularly interesting. During their final class, the pair jotted down notes and eagerly shared their knowledge and experiences with the class as sociology instructor Whytnee Foriest presented a PowerPoint on world religions.

Two students pose outside of McBryde Hall for a photo with their instructor.
Kalsoom Abdul Razaq and Sabahat Tanveer pose for a photo with their Virginia Tech sociology instructor, Whytnee Foriest. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

“Sociology is so diverse, and there are so many different cultures and different religions we have been able to study,” Tanveer said.

Foriest, who recently began teaching at Virginia Tech, shares the Islamic faith with Razaq and Tanveer.

“Not only do we have amazing students from the Sister 2 Sister program, we have students from Moldova, from Cyprus, and a few different places,” Foriest said. “Learning about each student’s culture has been amazing. With regards to our two students from Pakistan, I was really excited to meet them.”

“They’ve taught me amazing things, like how to say some words in Urdu,” she added. “It’s always nice to connect with students of similar backgrounds. Even if we’re not from the same country, we share something much larger. Faith.”

Farida Jalalzai, associate dean for global initiatives and engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and a professor of political science, said the program is an example of the college’s expansion of global partnerships, commitment to social justice, and dedication to intercultural learning.

“The program empowers the students who participate but also enhances the experience of students they interact with at Virginia Tech and their local communities after they return to Pakistan,” Jalalzai said.

The students also made time for fun in the region with activities like canoeing and tubing in the New River.

“It was all so new for me,” Razaq said, noting the two were considering hiking Virginia’s iconic McAfee’s Knob before making the trek home.

Tanveer said her favorite experience was meeting new people on campus.

“They’re all so nice,” she said. “Whenever we needed help, they helped us out a lot. And we met so many people from diverse cultures and backgrounds.”

2023 marks the third and final year Virginia Tech — one of seven participating universities —  hosted the program.

“The students who have participated in Sister 2 Sister these last three years are all amazing,” Jalalzai added. “They will go on to do great things in their careers but also serve as inspiration to so many other women. I am so fortunate to have gotten to know them.”

Tanveer said  the program has “changed” her.

“It has given me a lot of confidence,” she said. “It has shaped me into a person I never was before. It’s a really good experience. I have done a lot of things, really for the first time, since being here.”

Written by Kelsey Bartlett