A UNO student named Erik Servellon wonders something about Pakistan, but on a recent morning, he does not seek an answer in a textbook or by clicking to Wikipedia.
Instead he looks into a camera, one that connects his Omaha college course to a similar one on the campus of Quaid-i-Azam University. He looks into a camera, and he asks his question to the 13 Pakistani students and two Pakistani professors staring back at him.
“Is Pakistan stable?” he wonders.
A Pakistani student wearing a purple Puma polo shirt grabs his microphone.
Yes, there are a few skirmishes on the borders with India and Afghanistan. But by and large, Pakistan is a safe place.
“We're a stable democracy,” he says as the UNO students watch him on their television screen.
Another Pakistani student, one wearing hip glasses, answers next. People are threatened when they go to polling places to vote. People are scared to say what they truly think.
The truth, he says, is that it is impossible to see the Eiffel Tower when you are sitting underneath it.
“Our problem isn't our image,” he says. “Our problem is with ourselves.”
So the answer to Servellon's question is messy. It is a tad frustrating.
It is real.
“All I knew about Pakistan before was its bad relationship with India and violence,” Servellon tells me later. “This is so much more than that.”
This spring, a group of upperclassmen and graduate-level students in Professor Patrick McNamara's UNO international studies class had the first of what McNamara hopes will be many student-to-student exchanges by teleconference.
The Omaha students assemble in a conference room at 8:30 a.m. CST. The Pakistani students assemble in a classroom at 6:30 p.m., in Islamabad.
They stare into a camera and talk politics and politicians. They talk war and peace. They talk about the history of their countries and the history of their families.
Most important, they just look at each other and talk.
“Seeing them makes a difference,” says Alex Krause, a UNO senior. “Faces make a difference.”
This cross-cultural exchange spun out of a U.S. State Department program that last year brought three professors from Quaid-i-Azam University — a highly regarded university in Pakistan — to UNO for a visit.
A group from UNO, including McNamara, will return the favor and visit Quaid-i-Azam later this summer.
McNamara and a Pakistani professor decided to expand the exchange by teleconference twice a month, hourlong visits that allow UNO students to meet Pakistani students, and vice versa.
On a recent day, the teleconference conversation starts with the looming Pakistani elections. One student gives full-throated support to Imran Khan, a cricket legend turned politician who has galvanized young Pakistanis. Another backs the Pakistan Peoples Party, the current ruling party — one often criticized for being too cozy with the United States.
And a third comes to the microphone and, prodded by his professor, shyly announces that he's for Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a religiously conservative party that seeks to enforce Islamic law in Pakistan.
(After the class met, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League was elected as Pakistan's prime minister. Bilawal Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party came in second, and Imran Khan finished third.)
McNamara steers the conversation in a more personal direction. Tell a story about your parents or grandparents and how they influenced you, he asks both classes.
Servellon, the UNO senior, tells the Pakistanis that many American parents and grandparents came from places other than the United States.
His own came from Central America, he says. His mother crossed the border with dozens of others who hid together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the bed of a truck.
Servellon is the son of illegal immigrants, though he is a legal citizen because he was born in the United States.
He tells the Pakistanis that his parents did what they did because they wanted a better life for their children.
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He's now poised to graduate from college. He's also a member of the Nebraska National Guard.
“I know how lucky I am, to have the chances I've had,” he says. “I want to turn around and help people who don't have the same chances I have.”
Moments later, a Pakistani student tells the Omahans that his father and grandfather wear traditional clothing — loose-fitting pants called shalwar kameez, or what the students tell the Americans are “trousers without limitations.”
Students in both countries laugh at the joke.
The Pakistani student says he prefers jeans and button-up shirts. And he prefers to go to a university and to choose his own wife. His father, on the other hand, wants him to quit school and move back home to take part in an arranged marriage.
“I will not leave this university,” he says defiantly. “I will not leave unless they force me to leave.”
Before these exchanges began, the American students saw Pakistan as only terrorism. The Pakistanis likely viewed the United States as a deeply sinful place.
But on both sides of the camera, the views are changing. They are becoming messier. More nuanced. More real.
“Today, sitting in this place, I am in the process of redeveloping my perceptions” of Americans, one Pakistani student tells his new UNO friends.
Before they shut off the camera for the day, McNamara and his professorial counterpart at Quaid-i-Azam University pick an itinerary for the next exchange.
Next time, these students will talk about American drone attacks in Pakistan. And they will compare and contrast violence in Pakistan with violence in the United States.
“This will be interesting,” McNamara says, and he's right. It will be.