The exchange continues

Without accessing the Internet or dialing a telephone, Rappahannock residents are making an international impact.

Next week, 19-year-old Peshawar, Pakistan native Mohsin Ahmad will begin his freshman year at Goucher College in Baltimore. From the first spark of Ahmad’s interest, community members have led the effort enabling the former exchange student at Rappahannock County High School (RCHS) to continue his education in the United States.

Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel
From left, Margaret Warren, Mohsin Ahmad and Bill Dietel chat at Saturday’s potluck for the former Rappahannock exchange student from Peshawar, Pakistan.

Ellen Adams of Amissville and school board member Rosa Crocker are the mainstays of Ahmad’s support. Crocker identified promising schools, and when he came to the Washington, D.C. last August for a Youth Exchange Student (YES) conference, Ahmad extended his stay to visit five academic institutions with Crocker and Adams. They also guided him through the applications processes and completing the forms.

Goucher College has offered Ahmad a four-year scholarship covering half of his expenses. His father, Rappahannock residents, and other private donors have made significant contributions. An anonymous $5,000 challenge gift from a local resident kindled the campaign, Crocker says. She estimates that Ahmad still needs $2,800 for his first-year costs.

Ahmad plans to major in international relations or political science, which he believes will be excellent preparation for leadership roles.

“I want to make a difference on a large level in Pakistan,” said Ahmad, explaining that his country has lacked strong leadership for 30 to 40 years. He sees talented young people leaving Pakistan. “People are losing hope.”

Goucher appeals to Ahmad because he can pursue his passion for engineering at neighboring John Hopkins University and earn a dual degree. Ahmad wants to tackle the ongoing problems of power outages and fuel shortages in Pakistan by developing alternative energy sources.

Why study in the U.S.? There are five or six universities in Pakistan. Gaining acceptance is competitive, says Ahmad, who compares it to the difficulty of entering Harvard University.

Ahmad describes education here as “100 times better” than in Pakistan. Pakistani employers hold degrees from the U.S. and other foreign universities in high regard.

Typically only Pakistanis from wealthy families study abroad. Ahmad views his father, sister, brother and himself as middle class.

Building relationships
With a scholarship from the U.S. State Department’s YES program, Ahmad arrived in 2006 to start 12th grade.

“These students are the cream of the crop of their country,” says Sperryville resident Carol Lucking, former international coordinator for the Aspect Foundation. Part of her job was matching up Ahmad to live with Adams and Jonathan Neill-Dore and their son, Alexander.

Of the 15 YES teenagers in Virginia that year, says Lucking, Ahmad acclimated best to the new environment.

“He struggled at the beginning,” said Alexander Neill-Dore. “He was quite shy.” Apparently Ahmad’s reticence did not last long. “After two or three weeks we became like brothers.”

Neill-Dore, who was also a senior, observed Ahmad’s openness to different experiences and willingness to explore. “He jumped into everything you can imagine at school,” agrees Lucking.

Although he had never played an instrument, Ahmad joined the concert and marching bands as a percussionist. Despite having never played sports, he ran cross-country, joined the soccer team, and managed the basketball team. And, he competed in the “Mr. Rappahannock” contest and participated in the school talent show.

“Everybody loved him at school,” said Neill-Dore. “He always had a smile on his face.”

Ahmad has a reputation for maintaining a positive outlook. “He had an effervescent optimism in high school that continues to this day,” said Adams. She describes him as “a bright light.”

At that time, Roger Mello was principal of RCHS. He recalls a conversation that starkly contrasts with Ahmad’s buoyant frame of mind. In his career, says Mello, he must have asked some five thousand students what they want to do with their lives. One day he posed the question to Ahmad.

“One thing resonated with me. You are the only one who began his answer by saying, ‘If I live,’” Mello told Ahmad at a potluck fund-raising dinner for Ahmad held Saturday at Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, Va. “That opened my eyes to the world you stepped out of.”

Planting and spreading the seed of giving
YES participants must volunteer 100 hours in their host communities, and share the idea of volunteerism in their countries. In Pakistan, community service is a new concept.

While in Rappahannock, Ahmad videotaped RCHS varsity basketball games for players to improve their skills, served at Taste of Rappahannock, assembled Christmas baskets for the poor, and was a counselor in a children’s arts and crafts camp.

Ahmad’s reach expanded when teamed with fellow YES alumni in Pakistan. They established a library at an orphanage, held a blood drive and helped with a polio campaign.

As Muslims, the group reached out across religious divides by creating a Resource Center for Young Christians to provide support for volunteer initiatives in Christian communities.

Ahmad and his YES partners aided refugees from the Swat Valley by organizing a clothing drive. And, they arranged a sports day for over 80 Valley children.

With pride and enthusiasm, Ahmad describes Project Pakistan. The group designed wrist bands with uplifting statements, like “I love me for loving Pak” and “I am my HOPE!” They sold them to university students and purchased Pakistani flags. Through distributing the flags, they intend to bolster hopes for national healing.

But Ahmad’s time in Rappahannock County remained fresh in his mind. “I’m going to RCHS every night in my dreams,” he wrote to Adams.

With Rappahannock’s help, Ahmad’s dream is becoming reality, with advancement from high school to college. Lucking thinks Ahmad offers the community “a window into a world that’s misunderstood” and “a sense of being able to do something.”

To donate or learn more, contact Ellen Adams at (540) 937-4670, adamsell@gmail.com.

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About Alisa Booze Troetschel 30 Articles
By some folks' standards, Alisa Booze Troetschel is a newcomer. She moved to northwest Virginia two years ago after completing graduate studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has photographed, written and edited for local, regional and national magazines and newspapers, while delighting in the beauty surrounding her new home.