When Naveed Baqir and Amna Latif decided to leave Pakistan to further their education in the United States, they expected to find a society intolerant of their Muslim culture.
Instead, they found overwhelming support and acceptance at Eastern Illinois University, where their differences were embraced, not rejected.
The people at EIU, located in the small, friendly, rural community of Charleston in east-central Illinois, were extremely accommodating, the married couple said.
“When we came here, we found out we have two choices,” Naveed said. “Either we get into the melting pot, or we get into the salad bowl – keep our identity and enrich the environment. We were able to do the latter, and we’re not sure we could have done that if we’d gone to some other part of the U.S.”
Respect for diversity extends through the entire EIU community, Naveed said.
For example, when the couple obtained their student ID cards, employees made special arrangements to take a photo of Amna when no men were present, as she wears a veil, in keeping with Muslim beliefs.
“They are so open to new ideas and opinions,” Amna said of the people at EIU. “They are willing to change their way of thinking if you explain your logic.”
“Here, you’re given opportunities to follow whatever you believe in,” Naveed said, sitting in the library of the university where he and his wife recently graduated with master’s degrees.
Their journey began in the fall of 2002, when they started searching for schools in the United States.
“I wrote to so many schools, and I was getting automated responses,” Naveed said.
But when he wrote to EIU, he got actual answers to his questions, from a real person.
“I thought, ‘Man, this person really read my e-mail,’” he said. “The people at EIU were more friendly, right from the beginning.”
The International Programs staff, which serves students from more than 50 countries, often is praised for providing personal attention, said Bill Elliott, director of international admissions.
“We really can relate to what it’s like for students to leave their comfort zones and go somewhere they’re not used to,” Elliott said. “When you yourself have been out of your comfort zone, you understand what it’s like for students to be out of theirs. They’re not just going to be a number.”
The couple found the university – which U.S. News & World Report lists as one of the top universities in the Midwestern United States – to be large enough to offer quality programs, yet small enough to provide personal attention.
“Our goal is really to make it as easy as possible for students to come here and focus on what’s most important, and that’s their studies,” Elliott said.
When international students arrive, the EIU staff makes sure they have a ride from the airport and an apartment lined up.
Financial support is available, including scholarships, graduate assistantships and on-campus employment.
The University Apartments, where the couple lived at EIU, offer low-cost housing for families and graduate students.
In two years, Naveed was able to earn master’s degrees in both technology and in business administration, while his wife also earned two master’s degrees in technology and educational administration.
“The courses at Eastern are very well structured and laid out. I am convinced that with two graduate degrees from Eastern, I will be more productive for my country,” said Amna, who plans to use the skills she learned to prepare strategies and programs to benefit schools in Pakistan.
Naveed and Amna were also very involved in university activities outside of the classroom, and their friends included EIU President Lou Hencken.
“Naveed and Amna have been very active around campus, and I’m sure their positive attitudes and enthusiastic participation enriched not only their lives, but the lives of other students, staff and faculty as well,” Hencken said.
After seeing how happy Naveed and Amna have been at EIU, several friends and relatives from Pakistan have also decided to enroll. Amna’s brother and Naveed’s brother and sister are to start studying at EIU this fall.
Meanwhile, Naveed and Amna are preparing to pursue their doctorates at the University of North Carolina, where they hope they’ll find an atmosphere as welcoming and satisfying as the one they discovered at EIU.
“They will be missed by many people here, but we certainly wish them all the best as they use their education and experiences to make a difference in the world,” Hencken said. “We know they are well-prepared to face whatever challenges lie ahead, and we’re happy to have been a part of their journey.”
Naveed and Amna share that feeling.
“I feel honored to be part of Eastern and to have had the opportunity to study here,” Amna said.
“It was a very rewarding and pleasant experience,” Naveed said. “We never thought that it would be as good as it actually was.”
For more information on EIU, visit http://www.eiu.edu, or access the EIU International Programs site at http://www.eiu.edu/interntl.
* MORE ABOUT INTERNATIONAL PROGRAMS AT EASTERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY *
International Programs at Eastern Illinois University provides international students with a quality, comprehensive education, combined with an enjoyable and enriching introduction to American culture and society.
American students all over campus come into daily contact with international students in classes, dormitories and social events to share and exchange knowledge and insights about their respective countries. In addition, the townspeople of Charleston, Illinois, welcome their international student guests with frequent invitations to parties, events and other activities.
EIU International Programs offers English development and cultural exchange programs. Students are invited to participate in international parties, shopping trips and sightseeing excursions. The Association of International Students provides additional opportunities for growth and networking.
EIU’s campus, one of the safest in the United States, is three hours south of Chicago, Illinois. Its large, state-of-the-art facilities include computer labs, a newly renovated library, a huge fitness center with swimming pools and numerous other resources.
More than 11,600 students are enrolled at EIU, which has a 1:16 student-faculty ratio. The average class size is only 22.
EIU offers 44 undergraduate majors and 29 graduate programs.
More than 150 recognized student organizations are offered on Eastern's campus, in addition to departmental clubs, student government, minority student organizations, the student programming board, fraternities and sororities, and more.
For more information on EIU, see http://www.eiu.edu.