What we learned from a decade of implementing an exchange program with Pakistan

What we learned from a decade of implementing an exchange program with Pakistan

Michael Dyer


Three participants holding supplies while volunteering.

An evaluation of an academic and cultural exchange program revealed that participants improved their leadership skills, made gains in education and employment that exceed national averages, and developed a commitment to community service while forging lasting bilateral relationships.

In 2010, IREX partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to create the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program in Pakistan (Global UGRAD-Pakistan). Over the past decade, the program has supported more than 2,000 emerging youth leaders from diverse communities across Pakistan through a semester of undergraduate coursework and community engagement at American colleges and universities.

Global UGRAD-Pakistan is an important public diplomacy initiative with an emphasis on strengthening leadership development and building lasting relationships between Americans and Pakistanis. Program activities—such as country presentations and community service—position participants to enhance their leadership skills, envision and develop pathways to create positive change in their communities, and foster mutual understanding between the people of the United States and Pakistan.

To mark this milestone, IREX conducted an evaluation to assess the impact of the program’s first ten years. The results encompass perspectives from 590 alumni respondents spanning 18 semester cohorts (2010–2019). The evaluation shows that Global UGRAD-Pakistan alumni demonstrated increased leadership capacities, success in academic and professional ventures, an enduring commitment to service, and lasting ties with Americans they met during the program.

Here are four takeaways from the evaluation.

1. Emphasizing leadership development generates results

Global UGRAD-Pakistan is intentional in its approach to developing participants as emerging leaders. All program activities are anchored as points along a participant’s individual leadership journey and are guided by a tailored learning framework developed exclusively for Global UGRAD-Pakistan that is informed by the science and best practices in youth leadership development.

The emphasis on leadership development generates results. Nearly two-thirds of alumni surveyed indicated they gained confidence while in the United States that enabled them to be more effective leaders, particularly when it comes to public speaking, project management, and networking. Eighty-four percent of alumni continue to use the leadership skills and knowledge that they developed during the program. Additionally, 70% of alumni report serving in leadership roles at home in Pakistan.

Malala, a spring 2015 alumna, worked with mentors at the University of North Dakota, her host campus, to create StaySafe, an app and wearable device designed to empower women and prevent sexual assault. In 2017, Malala donated her prototypes to a research university in Islamabad to incorporate into their telehealth services. Malala’s leadership journey continues in her role at Shell Pakistan, where she paves the way for women in the male-dominated energy sector and advocates for broader inclusion practices as a certified diversity and inclusion facilitator.

A commitment to lifelong learning is essential to developing adaptive leaders who are responsive to new and emerging challenges, and the learning did not stop when participants returned home to Pakistan. Ninety-three percent of alumni continued to develop their leadership skills since participating in the program.   

2. Positioning emerging leaders to complete higher education contributes to economic advancement

Global UGRAD-Pakistan addresses a key priority for both the United States and Pakistan: building Pakistan’s human capital and powering its economic growth. The program accomplishes this by positioning emerging leaders to complete higher education and embark on careers that create positive change and contribute to economic advancement.

Nearly all Global UGRAD-Pakistan alumni complete college with a projected 99% undergraduate degree completion rate. The evaluation also revealed that many alumni pursue advanced degrees; approximately 80% of respondents are expected to complete a master’s or PhD program.

Academics translate into employment. Almost two-thirds of alumni who are not presently enrolled in higher education have secured full-time jobs, which exceeds the national average. In Pakistan, only 39% of youth under 25 are employed. An alumnus who studied engineering and recently gained new employment said, “This program has supported me on every step in my career and professional life.”

3. Community service provides experiential learning that alumni apply to tackle challenges in their home communities

While in the United States, participants complete 20 hours of volunteer service in their campus communities. Since 2010, participants have volunteered nearly 44,000 hours of service at organizations across the United States.

The exposure to the American value of service provides experiential learning that builds engagement between participants and Americans. Through community service, participants witness how citizens confront problems in their communities and how they design and implement effective interventions. Eighty percent of alumni agree that they are committed to carrying out community service on a regular basis because of their Global UGRAD-Pakistan experience, and 75% agree that they have created positive change in their home communities because of such efforts.

Perhaps most exciting is that over a third of alumni reported that the program propelled them to start a new initiative—such as a nonprofit organization—to pursue opportunities and tackle challenges in their home communities.

One alumnus, Mujtaba, used an alumni small grant to pilot a community service project to raise awareness and funds for academic scholarships to support underprivileged students in Lahore. After many years of hard work, that seed funding blossomed into Mujtaba’s own nonprofit organization, which earned him the Queen’s Young Leader Award, presented to him by Queen Elizabeth II. After receiving the honor, he attributed his success to his experience in the program, saying, “Global UGRAD-Pakistan gave me the opportunity.... That’s where it all started.”

4. Cultural exchange builds relationships that result in meaningful and positive perception change of America and Americans among program participants and their communities at home

At universities and colleges across the United States, participants experience America’s broad diversity firsthand, and program activities intentionally expose participants to a wide range of identities and perspectives. Participants introduce Pakistan to American audiences through country presentations and engage in U.S. cultural experiences, such as county fairs, sporting events, museums, and even public city council meetings, through the Digital Cultural Passport.

As community level ambassadors for Pakistan, participants gain an authentic understanding of the United States and share their firsthand accounts of Pakistan, fostering mutual understanding that builds cross-cultural connections that undermine the appeal of extremist narratives.

Through these program activities, participants have engaged with more than 93,000 Americans since the project’s inception in 2010. After program completion, 97% of alumni have maintained relationships with Americans they met through Global UGRAD-Pakistan, and over 81% correspond at least monthly. An alumnus from 2012 noted that a friendship he built while in the United States “has grown very strongly” and that “we are now like brothers.”

Over 90% of alumni have shared their U.S. experience with their communities in Pakistan, helping to shift perceptions about the United States and Americans. A 2015 alumnus wrote, “There’s no difference between us and them.... We are all human beings, and I saw there that [Americans] respect you... whatever country you are from, whatever religion you have.”

As a tool for reflection, the evaluation affirmed the effectiveness of Global UGRAD-Pakistan’s learning model in achieving its goals of strengthening participants’ leadership skills, enhancing academic competencies and career preparedness, and positioning participants to build sustained relationships with Americans that foster greater mutual understanding. With an eye toward the future, the evaluation will help shape future activities to ensure Global UGRAD-Pakistan continues to position its young leaders to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

Global UGRAD-Pakistan is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX.