Rija Ahmed

Las Vegas, N.M. – When a Highlands University international exchange student from Pakistan returns home she will tell people about the kindness of strangers in New Mexico.

“I’ve had many random strangers help me in New Mexico, which is very refreshing,” Rija Ahmed said. “Once when I was on the bus from Santa Fe to Las Vegas I was sick and an especially kind woman offered to take me to the hospital because she was so concerned. This is just one of many examples of how friendly people are here. If I tell someone I’m from Pakistan, they tend to be extra nice to me and interested in getting to know me. I’m so grateful,” Ahmed said.

The 24-year-old from Pakistan is participating in the U.S. Department of State’s Global Undergraduate Exchange Program, or UGRAD.

“You get a new perspective on life when you live in another country and culture. Being here has broadened my mind and is enriching. I’ve also become more resilient and independent,” Ahmed said.

She said she came to the United States to expand her educational and career opportunities.

“Around the globe, the U.S. is portrayed as the place you come to fulfill your dreams. There are so many excellent higher education opportunities in the U.S. My dream is to attend the Stanford University Design School, an interdisciplinary program that would prepare me for my career as a designer and entrepreneur. When you study in the U.S., employers in Pakistan are impressed. It expands your horizons,” Ahmed said.

She is a communications studies and design major at Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan and is on track to graduate in May 2018. Her minor is in social development and policymaking. Ahmed also has a small entrepreneurial business that brings artisan crafts and jewelry across the border from India to sell in Pakistan.

At Highlands, Ahmed is taking media arts classes such as HD Cinema and Imaging History and Production, along with other classes like History of the United States.

“I’m having a good experience with my professors at Highlands. They are very understanding and accommodating. They also help me understand aspects of American culture that are new to me. For example, my history professor Dr. Kristie Ross helped me understand how racial struggles dating back to the Civil War still shape some current opinions, especially in the Southeastern part of the country,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed, who is Muslim, said she believes she is in America during a historic time.

“I haven’t been personally affected by the U.S. President’s travel bans for Muslim countries because Pakistan is not on the list. But the travel bans are a very sad thing because they tear families apart. I think this kind of action actually spreads hatred and fear rather than bridging the gap between different cultures,” Ahmed said.

On Jan. 27, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order enacting a travel ban for seven Muslim-majority countries. Since then, several federal judges have ruled against the travel ban, which restricted travel to the U.S. On March 6, Trump issued a second travel ban for six Muslim majority countries as well as suspending the country’s refugee program.

Ahmed said before the exchange program she works with placed her at Highlands University, she had no idea New Mexico existed, and that the state contradicts some of the misperceptions people in her country have about the U.S.

“One misperception people in Pakistan and elsewhere have is that America is prosperous wherever you go. I think this is because of the glitter and glamour image that Hollywood portrays. I was surprised that a place like New Mexico that’s so culturally and historically rich could also have poverty,” Ahmed said.

She said the biggest culture shock for her was coming to college in a small city like Las Vegas.

“I’m from Karachi, one of the biggest metropolitan cities in the world with 24/7 access to everything from groceries to medicine. At first it was hard to adjust to little Las Vegas. I also miss having public transit that makes it easier to be independent,” Ahmed said.

She said one of her fondest memories of Highlands will be the close friendships she’s developed with other women from her residence hall at Highlands.

“My dearest friends are Mary Miller, a Las Vegas girl, and Stephany Reyes, another international student from El Salvador. They’ve been so open, accepting and willing to learn about my religion and culture. They are both thoughtful and caring gems. Mary and Stephany also helped me cope with homesickness. When I was away for my birthday, I came home to the dorm and they had decorated my room with balloons and presents,” Ahmed said.

As part of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program, Ahmed will do community service. She selected the City of Las Vegas Animal Shelter, which the Animal Welfare Coalition of Northeastern New Mexico operates.

“I worked with an animal shelter back home in Pakistan and it’s one of my passions in life,” Ahmed said.