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More Than 7,230 Miles Apart, Mason and Pakistani Professor Come Together

By Mason Spirit contributor on November 2, 2017

George Mason University education professor Rebecca Fox, MA ’93, PhD ’99, stepped to the lectern before a conference hall bedazzled with color. Many in the audience were clad in shalwar kameez, the traditional tunic and pants worn by Pakistanis: neutral tones for the men and a spray of oranges, pinks, and powder blues for the women, most of whom also had draped dupattas over their heads or around their necks.

The conference, Innovation and Internationalization in Pakistani Higher Education, marked the culmination of a partnership between Mason and the University of Management and Technology (UMT) in Lahore. As Fox began her concluding remarks, it became clear that even as the formal project was winding down, the work was just beginning.

Mason professor Rebecca Fox working with graduate students in Pakistan.

“We don’t want this to end,” she said as she prodded participants to ponder their next steps. “I think this collaboration will only blossom from now on.”

Fox, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development, has for the past two years been living in two time zones. By day, she juggles the myriad demands on faculty; at night or early morning, usually on Skype, she is talking with colleagues in Lahore, nine hours ahead.

Such efforts may not be as visible as Mason’s diverse array of international students, its campus bulletin boards studded with study-abroad flyers, or the high-profile rollout of Mason Korea. Nevertheless, Fox’s collaboration with UMT is one of hundreds of examples of how Mason scholars have forged ties overseas through projects funded by the U.S. government or private foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation. They all play a crucial part in Mason’s commitment to its expanding role as a “university for the world.”

Fox’s project, the Collaboration for Faculty Excellence in Teaching and Research, is funded by the U.S.-Pakistan University Partnerships Program of the U.S.-Pakistan Academic Linkages Program, U.S. Department of State Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy Islamabad. Mason’s Center for Social Science Research received a similar grant for its work with the University of Karachi in Pakistan.

The partnerships, which emphasize the role of the social sciences and humanities in sustainable democracies, reflect how important higher education has become in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Mason is now working to establish a Memorandum of Understanding to participate in the U.S.-Pakistan Knowledge Corridor, a bilateral initiative through which 10,000 Pakistani scholars will have the opportunity to pursue doctorates at U.S. universities.

Mason education professor Rebecca Fox with Waqar Ahmed, who was her primary contact in Pakistan.

Through Fox’s grant, 39 UMT faculty visited Mason in 2016 for two weeks of professional development, during which they visited classrooms, met one-on-one with Mason researchers, and participated in workshops and seminars led by education faculty. By the time they left Mason, participants had developed action plans for both research and teaching. At the conference, held this past spring, they presented the fruits of that work.

UMT assistant professor Umer Ayub, for example, found that students who felt they were in a “psychologically safe” classroom environment could have a positive impact on student learning. In a separate study, assistant professor Sadia Asif found that peer pressure and fear of being criticized are two factors that inhibit a student’s chances of speaking in English-only classrooms.

Another State Department goal is to strengthen people-to-people ties between the two countries. Though schedules at Mason and UMT were packed, there was always time for sharing meals, jokes, and family photos.

“At the end of the day, everybody is a human being,” says Naveed Afzal, director of UMT’s School of Health Sciences.

The grant will continue to fund travel for UMT professors who present at U.S. conferences. Two faculty members hope to return to Mason as visiting scholars. Another conference is planned for next year.

“I am truly amazed at the ongoing ripple effect of this exercise,” says UMT’s former rector, Hasan Sohaib Murad, who worked closely with Fox to develop the project. “I could not foresee how far and deep it would be.”

The conference marked Fox’s second time at UMT. Last fall, she and colleague Anna Evmenova, a professor of assistive and special education technology, visited the campus for a midpoint check-in. They returned in the spring with two Mason graduate students to help organize the conference, and to participate in workshops, seminars, and other activities organized by UMT.

Though State Department advisories cautioned against travel to Pakistan—just weeks before the conference, a terrorist group claimed responsibility for a bombing in Lahore that left 13 people dead—Fox and her team did not want to cancel. Mason’s recently hired International Health and Safety Program Officer required Fox and her team to stay in regular contact with Mason while abroad.

“We understood the full context of where we were going, but we knew we would be well-cared for” by both UMT and Mason, Fox says, noting that backing out would have violated the fundamental spirit of the relationship. “I really feel we can be ambassadors for the goodness in the world.”

—Mary Beth Marklein

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