Making a Difference in Utah
Exchange student from Pakistan poses with Pakistani cultural display in U.S. high school library in Utah

Winner: International Education Week student contest

[This article is featured in the Dec. 2022 issue of PAX Press.]

“How would you describe Pakistani culture to someone who has never heard of it?” asked an interviewer from the school yearbook staff at my American high school.

My lips stretched into a wide smile, and my eyes glinted as I replied, “The culture of my country is like a huge, beautiful painting with countless different colors. Each color conceals something unique beneath itself in the form of food or dances, music or dresses. All these shining hues combine to give me a distinctive image, a proud identity as a Pakistani.”

However, my four months in the U.S. made me realize that negativity reigned, as positivity struggled to remove the barrier in front of many people’s eyes. The barrier had been planted by the media and politics. The barrier showed people just the gray shadows lingering amongst the attractive colors of the painting.

The barrier brought forward exclamations and questions such as: “Pakistan? Isn’t that where all the terrorists are from?” and “I am so sorry that you have to wear this covering around you (hijab). I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”

Or in other cases, the lack of proper information was reflected in words like, “So what part of India is Pakistan from?” and “Do you guys have proper internet service in your country?”

Surprisingly, none of these remarks made me feel upset. Instead, they filled me with a great sense of responsibility and enthusiasm, with the strong ambition that I had to create change. As a youth ambassador for my country and as an exchange student, I had the power to do that. In terms of Pakistan or Islam, people were in a dark tunnel, and I had the means of filling that tunnel with light.

International Education Week was thus a week that I spent educating people about my country, religion, customs, and traditions, answering countless questions, and clearing the confusion of more than 300 people.

From making my favorite Pakistani dish known as biryani as well as the Pakistani rice pudding kheer for my host family, turning heads in the corridors of my American high school while wearing the traditional salwar kameez with a cultural jewelry item known as a matha patti, I had some of the best moments of my life this week.

I have always loved to explore the lands of creativity in my mind, and thus, apart from giving presentations in classrooms, I came up with the idea of setting up an exhibition in the library of my school. It consisted of not just displays, but writing names in Urdu with a mehendi (which is also called henna), as well as small quiz contests about Pakistan, winning which could get you a cultural item as a prize.

The fascination and amazement shining on the faces of my fellow students, their superb reactions, and their newfound desire to visit Pakistan one day were the best gifts that I have received in my entire life.

The fascination and amazement shining on the faces of my fellow students, their superb reactions, and their newfound desire to visit Pakistan one day were the best gifts that I have received in my entire life.

Here are some of the messages that I received from some students after the exhibition.

“I would love to visit Pakistan. From what I’ve learned so far, I love the culture.” (Tyler)

“You did so incredible! It was super cool to learn about Pakistan. I LOVE the henna tattoo. If I ever get the chance to travel, I am definitely going to Pakistan.” (Rachel)

“That display was so cool. I feel like we never get to see exchange students' culture, so I loved it.” (Braidyn)

“That is so cool that you were able to share all of those amazing things about Pakistan. It sounds like such an amazing place!” (Belle)

My favorite presentation, however, was the presentation that I gave at our local church. More adults were present, so I was asked some serious questions and was carefully and efficiently able to address controversial topics.

International Education Week did not just leave me feeling incredibly grateful for this opportunity, but those around me were also glad to be able to broaden their horizons and learn about another culture.

I am so thankful for PAX and the YES program for being the reason I did something I have always dreamed of doing and for providing me the first step to bringing about a small change.

As Jane Goodall says, “Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world.”

—Mariam (YES, Pakistan), hosted by the Eggett family (UT)