UMass-Pakistani exchange opens minds and hearts of Amherst educators

Last modified: Wednesday, March 18, 2015

AMHERST — The terrorist attack that killed more than 100 schoolchildren and educators in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in December was about 7,000 miles away from Rebecca Woodland’s home, but for her it was as if it had happened in a neighboring community.

Woodland, an associate professor at the center for education policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, participates in two exchange programs with Pakistan, one for teachers and one for students.

Just months after the attack, Woodland was supposed to visit Pakistan for the first time. Rather than frighten her away from her purpose, she said the attack made her even more eager to go.

“All I could think was the terrorists, they murdered my kids, they went after my colleagues. My heart was right there with my Pakistani colleagues,” Woodland said. “It was as if it happened in Connecticut or Massachusetts.”

Woodland met those colleagues through the Instructional Leadership Institute for Pakistani Educators program at UMass, for which she is academic director. Established last year, the program brought 20 secondary school teachers and administrators from around Pakistan to Massachusetts for five weeks during June and July 2014 to learn teaching practices at UMass and Amherst-Pelham Regional High School.

That program developed as an offshoot of an existing Pakistani student exchange program — Pakistani Young Leaders — which has brought about 25 Pakistani students to UMass and the Amherst high school each year since 2010.

Woodland and other teachers got the chance to visit Pakistan for the first time in February.

They visited mostly private schools. It was difficult for the group to get into public schools because of government regulation following the attack, she said.

One of the most meaningful experiences for her was getting on stage in front of an assembly thousands of girls. One student in the back of the crowd made a heart with her two hands, and Woodland copied the gesture.

Suddenly before her, many of the girls were cheering, clapping and making hearts to one another.

Woodland interpreted the display as one of unity: “We’re one; we love you; we’re with you,” she said. “That was an electric moment.”

Another experience burned into her memory was visiting a school for poor orphans. Children didn’t have clothing to wear or a home to go back to. Developmentally, they were small for their ages, and they read from old and shabby ABC readers.

“I was struck deeply to my core by the gap between the utter need of these children and what anybody was able to provide for them,” Woodland said. “I had never seen first hand such abject poverty.”

For Woodland, exchange programs are vital. While government policies aim to direct world action, person-to-person interaction allows people to understand one another and connect personalities to far away places, she said.

“Pakistan is beautiful. The people are beautiful, kind, open-hearted people,” Woodland said. She said the trip “undid any stereotypes I might have had and replaced them with a whole new sense of appreciation for my fellow man.”

Samantha Camera, a social studies teacher at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, is the academic director of the Pakistani Young Leaders program, which brings Pakistani students to Amherst.

Each summer since 2010, 25 Pakistani students have joined between 15 and 30 UMass and Amherst high school students in joint comparative public policy classes at UMass, Camera said.

The Amherst classes run for four weeks, after which students spend two weeks visiting Boston, New York, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think there’s anything better than people-to-people exchanges,” Camera said. “The things that happen outside of the classroom, the cultural understanding and misunderstanding, that’s where the learning is.”

For Camera, the importance of the program is in dispelling stereotypes the two cultures have for one another. Americans largely see Pakistan through the lens of media reports about terrorism, Camera said. Pakistanis have their own biases toward Americans, she added.

“Parking meters were fascinating to Pakistanis, that you would have to pay for a spot to park your car and what that meant about the larger system,” Camera said.

In general, Pakistani students were inquisitive and asked questions of American students as well as teachers, she said. They asked about their thoughts on Pakistani teen turned Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who has been an advocate for women’s rights and survived an assassination attempt in 2012. They asked Americans about Obama’s support of India, sometimes to the detriment of Pakistan.

“Just that question triggered a whole series of questions about India and Pakistan I don’t think those students would have considered,” Camera said.

Camera helped to write the grant in 2013 that allowed UMass to pursue the Instructional Leadership Institute for Pakistani Educators. The teachers were in the classrooms giving lectures to students, but also learning about American teaching techniques, Camera said.

One of the main techniques was differentiated instruction, which deals with personalizing a lesson for students, according to Woodland. Rather than giving a lecture, a teacher will seek to bring the material to students in interactive ways, she said.

Michael Hannahan, director of the civic initiative at the UMass Donahue Institute, oversees both Pakistan programs along with exchanges to Iraq, Argentina and the university’s Fulbright program.

Exchange programs to Asia like the Pakistani programs are on the increase, which has followed a presidential foreign policy focus on Asia and Africa, Hannahan said.

Hannahan had praise particularly for the new teachers’ program. Pakistani educators are returning to their home country with newfound enthusiasm for teaching techniques, he said.

He added that the program is a boon to the local high school as well.

“There’s probably not another high school in the U.S. like Amherst High School when it comes to teachers (interacting with) the Islamic world,” Hannahan said.

Earlier in March, several teachers and one student involved in the program met with U.S. Representative James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, at his Northampton office.

The student who attended, Neha Deshpande, is a 21-year-old senior legal studies and political science major from Hillsborough, New Jersey. She is also of Indian descent, which made her a curiosity in Pakistan, which has long had a rivalry with India.

Deshpande told McGovern she had heart-to-heart conversations with Pakistanis about their respective countries in a meaningful way.

“At the base level, we all want the same thing,” Deshpande said in McGovern’s office. “Everyone agrees that they don’t hate the people.”

Often the conversations led them to believe that the governments of the two countries does not represent the viewpoints of the majority of people who want cooperation between India and Pakistan.

McGovern said that the same problem exists in the United States. He pledged to support the Pakistani programs by advocating for them with federal grant awarding bodies and by meeting with students and educators the next time they visit.

“I actually believe in this stuff and I think it is worth doing, and we don’t do nearly enough of it,” he said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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