In 2018 Mohammad Hassany, Iqbal Sadat and Hosam Stanikzai traveled from their home country of Afghanistan to Stevens Institute of Technology on prestigious Fulbright Scholarships in pursuit of master’s degrees in software engineering, construction management and systems engineering, respectively.
They achieved their academic goals when they graduated in May. But they left Stevens with much more than their degrees.
“The Fulbright scholarship is not just about the education, it’s a cultural exchange that exposes you to another society, to learn from them and bring it back to your country and share [what you learned] with the people,” Sadat explained.
The culture shock of America was tremendous at the beginning, they admitted.
“Before coming to Stevens, I had never traveled outside of my country,” Stanikzai revealed.
Hassany, Sadat and Stanikzai lived together in neighboring Jersey City, which became a beloved home for them during their U.S. stay.
“Jersey City had become our village,” Stanikzai said warmly.
While living in their adopted “village” and experiencing campus life at Stevens, they grew to appreciate the diversity of the people around them.
“The cultural diversity that I saw: people from different parts of the world living together and respecting and embracing one other is what I think makes the foundation of [America] so strong,” Sadat observed.
Becoming aware of the cultural differences, they say, allowed them to respect other points of views.
“You realize that the values you have may not be the values that other people have. And you have to embrace and respect those differences. That’s what I learned,” he added.
A desire to apply their Stevens education back home
Stevens faculty, especially their advisors, provided the critical support Hassany, Sadat and Stanikzai needed to navigate their American expereince in and out of the classroom.
“My professors, especially my advisor James Rowland, have been supportive and given me advice,” Hassany said.
For Sadat, the person who was instrumental to his Stevens journey was professor Ellyn Lester, director of the built environment programs.
“My admission to Stevens and coming to the U.S. was made possible by her,” Sadat pointed out.
As for Stanikzai, the person who was “always there for him” was Stevens research professor Jon Wade.
“When I started taking subjects here, everything was new for me. And Professor Wade was there for me whenever I needed help with anything. He was amazing,” Stanikzai shared.
Now armed with their Stevens degrees, they are hopeful that they can apply what they have learned to help build the infrastructure their country so desperately needs.
For Hassany, it involves building the digital infrastructure of the country. The scarcity of expertise to do so is what has driven his academic pursuits.
“I came to Stevens to study software engineering because the first thing we should learn and apply in Afghanistan is the software system that we can build and maintain. I plan to use what I learned [at Stevens] and also what I learned before and apply it to government projects,” Hassany explained.
In Afghanistan, Sadat worked for the Ministry of Transportation, which exposed him to civil engineering projects led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The possibility of greater opportunities in public works projects in his home country inspired him to pursue a master’s in construction management.
“There are opportunities [made available through] the leading ministries in Afghanistan – in transportation, development and housing. And there are international donors active in Afghanistan, such as the World Bank, Nation Development Bank and the United Nations which can present opportunities where I can advise. To apply for these opportunities I needed to develop some skills. And I think to a great extent I developed them here at Stevens,” Sadat said.
Stanikzai came to Stevens with a mechanical engineering background. Still, coursework in systems engineering was unfamiliar and overwhelming in the beginning, he says.
Now, as he looks back on what he calls a “tremendous learning experience,” he is confident that his Stevens degree will help him succeed in whatever field he finds himself in.
“The 21st century is a century of systems. And they’re becoming complex. And I have a lot of skills that I will be able to apply in overcoming the challenges that we’ll be facing when the systems become more complex. So I’m very optimistic about the future that I will have and feel very confident going into the industry,” said Stanikzai.
A nation colored by war
The reaction from people upon learning they are from Afghanistan ranges from shock to curiosity, they say.
“[Most people] think that there could be no one from Afghanistan in the U.S. But sometimes there are people who are curious and want to know more about Afghanistan: how the situation is over there and how things are working,” Stanikzai said.
What rarely gets talked about, they say, is the beauty of Afghanistan with its lush green mountains and fertile valleys. The country’s minerals, gemstones and fruits, such as pomegranates, are world famous, they proudly note.
“Our fruits are just amazing. I have never had an apple in the U.S. which was comparable to the taste of the apple that we have,” added Stanikzai.
Beyond the country’s physical beauty and natural resources, they hope the rest of the world can see past the war and view Afghans as “caring, hospitable and loving people.”
“I would say: don’t just listen to the news and judge the country based on the face that war has given the country,” Stanikzai urged.
“I hope there will be peace," Sadat adds, "so that people, youth like us, can go back to Afghanistan and be allowed to contribute to the development of Afghanistan,” Sadat adds.
[UPDATE: COVID-19 upended the group’s post-graduate plans to participate in a seminar at the University of California, Davis, as well as a road trip through the western part of the U.S. Additionally, the restrictions of international travel during the pandemic made returning to Afghanistan a significant challenge. After several unsuccessful attempts, Sadat and Hassany have finally returned home. Meanwhile, Stanikzai is in Texas visiting a family member.]