A few questions that were asked by people when I told them I am from Pakistan;
- “Do you own a camel?” When I told them, “Sadly, I don’t,” follow up question…” how do you travel to work then?”
- “Do you know any American singers?” I answered, “Madonna, Michael Jackson.” Follow-up question, “How do you know who Madonna is?”
- “What is Superman’s dog’s name?” On telling him Krypto, he replied, “Awesome! I love comics too!”
These questions would perhaps sound discriminatory to the uninitiated. Still, I knew these were authentic questions from honest people who genuinely wanted to learn about my culture and my part of the world. That is the impact of Fulbright. It joins us in a bond that transcends artificial borders and human constructs. It encourages us to step out of our comfort zones, forge new relationships, and break stereotypes. The impact of the Fulbright experience is so strong, it stays with you throughout your life, reminding you to think beyond yourself, reminding you to be a human before anything else.
When I went on the Fulbright scholarship in 2013, Boston was still rocking from the Boston Marathon bombings. People had frightened me into thinking that my religion and skin color would be held against me and I would be racially and religiously profiled for the next two years. However, I saw compassion from the very first day I landed in the USA. I had not finalized my lodging before arriving in the US and ended up staying three nights at logan airport. I used to lug around my baggage all across Boston to come back to Logan to spend the night. It was on my fourth day when I was struggling to get my luggage on the metro when a woman came out of the train to help me with my baggage, saying, “I travel a lot, and I understand how stressful it is when you are in a new place and know no one. It will be okay.” That small gesture of compassion was enough to carry me throughout the day, and by the end of it, I found a place I would call home for the next two years.
Similarly, while interning with Schneider Electric, I went into work on my birthday expecting for it to be like any other typical day only to find my cabin all decked out in decorations and treats waiting for me in the cafeteria, along with a home-baked cake. My supervisor told me, “We are your family away from family! We look after each other.”
Those and numerous other gestures from people have stayed with me and helped me evolve into a better person. It was this reason that made me step out of my comfort zone and do something that I had never dreamed I would do…run the 5K Spartan race. The message I wrote on the plaque placed at the finish line was “for Fulbright” as a tribute to an experience of a lifetime.
Waqas Idrees – Fulbright to USA 2013