SUSI - Sara Khan
I still remember, it was late in November and clock was ticking as the deadline for SUSI application was approaching. I had a Math exam in the morning and I was still perfecting my essay questions for the SUSI applications. Everyone around me thought, it was foolish to spend (waste) time over an exchange program when I should be concentrating on my exams, which will reward me good grades and that matters the most. There is no guarantee that you will get in, they said. But there is never a guarantee in life and one must always try their best.
Everyone told me that to be a SUSI principle candidate one must have tons of experience with community service, did attended high profile conference and have thousands of certifications. But I was only a sophomore in university and had not joined many societies as yet and the only community service I did was during summer break.
I saved up my modest pocket money and with that I bought stationery items and taught a group of 5 street children in my street how to read and write. This project continued for 3 months in my house and while I took on the role of an informal teacher, I did not intend to publicize it as I was doing it as a part of Sadqa e Jariya.
I tried to suppress the self doubt that was crawling up on me and went on finishing my profile. Fast forward a few months I got the call for interview from US consulate informing me that I have my interview tomorrow. With rarely any time to prepare for the interview, I decided to be myself and read through my essay questions again. The interview went on very smooth and they were mostly interested in how I am as a person.
To my surprise, a week following my interview I got a call again from the consulate that they want to publish my story in their “Khabro Nazar Magazine”. This appreciation even before the final results was very encouraging for me.
At first my father was concerned about my safety, also considering the pressure he faced from people to let his daughter go to a foreign country alone. It is important to talk to your parents and loved ones about their concerns and fears, so I sat down with my parents and gave them full information about the structure of the program, the sponsors and most importantly the ensured safety as The U.S. department of state was directly involved in designing the program.
My happiness knew no limits when in February I got the final selection email from U.S. consulate stating that I have been placed in UMASS, Amherst in the Comparative Public Policy Program and my happiness knew no boundaries. Being a student of Social Sciences I was always interested in learning about different societies and cultures. The U.S. seemed like a perfect case study in relation to my specialization in Development Studies.
The visa interview went very smooth and they were interested in knowing about the program, and what I am going to study there. My visa took a long time to arrive compared to my other SUSI fellow candidates and I remembered all the horror stories my seniors told me about not getting a visa even after winning a scholarship. The waiting period was nerve wrecking, and at the back of my mind I knew that if I don’t get a visa in time they will replace me with an alternative but Alhumdulilah I received my visa just in time.
Somewhere in late June, I packed my bags and headed to the airport for my new journey ahead. Amherst was a small but beautiful town filled with lush green trees and smiling faces. At first like everyone else culture shock hit me really hard and I felt like a curious child running around my sorority and the campus.
The program was well designed with various lectures from experts of the field and guest speakers who were well informed about the issues. The Program provided an overview of the U.S. Federalist system of government as well as the role of non-governmental institutions such as civic organizations, the media, and the private sector in the creation of U.S. public policy. I explored the responsibilities of local and state government, as well as the three branches of the U.S. government, the system of checks and balances, and the role of local and state governments in leading and innovating in various policy areas, through the program. The program also helped me examined how organizations, the media, and the private sector influence government policy. Within the broader frame of the public policy process, I explored and discussed specific public policy questions on topics such as public finance, rule of law, education, public health, environment, and foreign policy.
The classroom experience was a two way learning process where I learnt from my teachers and American class fellows and they learnt from me about my culture and my society. Family dinners were arranged where we visited an American family and had home cooked dinner as we talked about how different yet similar we are on so many human levels. I had the privilege to witness the grand 4th of July celebration with Halal BBQ and magnificent fireworks, where diversity was celebrated as people from different nationalities sang their own national anthem one by one.
As the end of the program approached we through a Pakistani themed party for our American professors, mentors, friends and anyone we met along the way. It was beautiful to see my American friends dressed in traditional Shalwar Kameez and the girls wearing traditional jewelry. They loved the biryani, butter chicken and daal that we cooked for them and danced to Punjabi, Pashto and even Sindhi songs.
I also l had the opportunity to engage in community service with the Western Massachusetts Food Bank. This experience taught me about how food shortage effects lives and the food we waste can easily feed one family. So I stood outside Wal-Mart in July with banners, and a box saying “FEED AMERICA” and a polite smile asking people to donate nonperishable items to those in need. A rare sight of what my friends call “A pathan begging”.
The last week of the program gave us as opportunity to indulge in luxury trips as we moved from state to state discovery America and staying in 5 star hotels across the country. We also visited several universities such as Harvard, MIT and University of Virginia, where we took a few classes. The Program ended in Washington D.C, where I gave a presentation about my experience and what I learnt from my time spent in U.S.
At the end it would be an understatement if I say that my experience changed me as a person. My time spent abroad helped me grow as a person and taught me to be flexible and listen to other’s perspective even though I might not agree to it or not even like what I hear. I learnt that it is important to coexist and develop empathy for others while maintaining your own individuality.
I highly encourage everyone, especially girls to apply for this once in a life time experience.
A Few Tips:
Never and I repeat never fall prey to self doubt!!
I understand that good academics are crucial for students in this age but that is not the only quality they are looking for during the selection process. They are mostly interested in producing “Leaders” rather than PhDs. Yes you have a good GPA, but what can you do for your community and your country?
Your compassion for your community and your passion to give back to your people, the urge to fix something and change people’s lives are much more valuable than your grades and that is exactly the kind of people that they are looking for. You have to write a personal statement in which you have to tell them about yourself. Please keep in mind what they are looking for while writing it and also don’t lie as they are very experienced and you can get caught during the interview. Also highlight your leadership qualities through real life examples. I highly encourage girls to apply.
This program is unique in many terms, one being that it is held in summer break and you don’t have to freeze or repeat a semester.