Living his American dream

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Ashley Lau | 15 years, 1 month ago

Pakistani senior tackles the college application process

Sitting alone in the SAC eating the last of his french fries, senior Muhammad Waqar quickly dumps his lunch tray into the trash before heading off on what has become his usual lunchtime route: an occasional trip to the career center followed by a half hour in the media center.

Though the daily excursion to the library may seem like a nice reprieve from the busy hallways and crowded atmosphere of 5B lunch, Waqar admits the real reason he goes there every day is to do school work and sift through the online pages of "The Princeton Review," a college information web site that has helped him along his application process.

For Waqar, who moved to Silver Spring from Pakistan late last fall, french fries aren't the only culture shock he will have to overcome this year - the American college application process, completely foreign to Waqar, is like a maze with many paths to choose from. Like many foreign students coming to America for the first time, Waqar often feels disadvantaged because he is not completely familiar with all the steps he will have to take in order to attend either Princeton University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his dream schools. As admission deadlines approach, the entire application process may seem like a convoluted jigsaw puzzle, but Waqar is confident and ready to solve it.

Taking matters into his own hands

Cathy Henderson-Stein, an assistant at Blair's career center, says that the college application process can be much more difficult for seniors who are new to the procedure, let alone the country. "Even if they've had experience in their own country, the American system is quite different," Henderson-Stein explains. "Often, they are the ones having to educate their parents about the American university process."

For Waqar, whose family immigrated to the U.S. so he could attend an American university, this is exactly the case. Waqar knows he is doing much more than he would have ever imagined doing had he stayed in Pakistan. Educating himself on the application process, Waqar attended a Princeton University appearance in the career center, met with his guidance counselor and visited the web sites of numerous universities and colleges across the country. "People in Pakistan are not worried about applying to college. [In Pakistan] you just apply to one or two colleges and you just get into it. There's not as much planning." Waqar says.

In addition to easier admission preparation, Waqar explains one of the underlying reasons why most high school seniors in Pakistan aren't as pressured to earn good grades and why they don't get the same "stress vibe" that he notices other American seniors experiencing. According to Waqar, many students are able to get fake high school diplomas or transcripts - some even have fake Master's degrees.

Waqar makes it clear that he doesn't want to take that route - he has a vision of paving his way through a successful career path to become the first person from his family to attend an American university. He proudly explains that it was his decision to take three Advanced Placement courses in an eight-period day, enroll in additional night courses at Blair and set aside time every night to study for the SATs - all in hopes of getting into a good university.

Surveying the setbacks

Even so, Waqar realizes that there are certain disadvantages associated with his status as a new student in America. Because he doesn't hold American citizenship, Waqar does not know if he can receive financial aid, and he will have to evaluate his options for scholarships and loans. Furthermore, despite his eight-period schedule, Waqar will not be able to make up the other three years worth of high school credits in one year.

He also worries about how colleges will perceive this course credits from Pakistan. While Spanish and French are among the more common foreign languages studied in high school, Waqar has only one foreign language credit for Urdu, the native language of his country. He worries that colleges will see this as a drawback.

On top of that, Waqar still must learn the policies of educational institutions in the American school system. Having received Loss of Credit (LC) warnings for three of his classes last year and having been late for his first period class six times before, Waqar often finds himself bumping into school policies without even noticing, as skipping class without an excuse note is "no big deal" in Pakistan. But even Waqar knows that an LC doesn't look good to any admissions office.

Motivation: Bollywood

While Waqar adapts to the American school system, there are some aspects of his culture that he will never let go of, including Bollywood movies. Waqar admits he watches a minimum of two movies a day, 10 movies a week and logs on regularly to many Bollywood web sites. "I have to see every movie. I love Bollywood - movies, Internet, everything!" Waqar says.

All of that movie-watching has not gone to waste. According to Waqar, Bollywood has inspired him to pursue a career in film. "Watching Bollywood has been a motivation to go to college. I want to go to filmmaking school," Waqar says.

Waqar's individuality may work to his advantage in the college process, says Henderson-Stein. "They look at the student's major. Is that student going to be just one more economics or biology major?" Henderson-Stein says. 'They want the astronomy major living next to the dance major living next to the Italian major living next to the physical therapy major."

Though Waqar has high expectations for a future in Bollywood, his parents want him to study science. "My parents won't let me. They want me to study medical or engineering," Waqar says. "People in Pakistan want their children to be educated, not making films."

But he respects his parents' opinions and realizes that making it in the film industry, as glamorous as it sounds, would not be an easy task. Waqar does not plan to pursue film for his entire life; he acknowledges that many film artists major in one field and then go into the movie industry after establishing a firm education.

As the bell rings signaling the end of 5B lunch, Waqar logs off the computer and hands his pass back to the library assistant knowing that tomorrow, he will be back. "It takes a little bit of time, but still, it takes time," Waqar says of applying to college.

Before heading back out onto noisy Blair Boulevard, Waqar takes one last moment to reassure himself that the American college application process is conquerable. "I think I will surely go [to college]," he says. "There's no chance that I can't."

- Helpful college application advice for students:
- 391 foreign students enrolled in undergraduate at Princeton University in the 2004-2005 year
- Eight foreign students enrolled undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year.
- 3,197 foreign students enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park last fall 2004
- The new SAT test takes a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete.
- Helpful hints for applying to college:

Ashley Lau. Born in Boston, Ashley is a huge Red Sox fan and sometimes wishes she could just live at Fenway Park. She loves to run, do tae kwon do, travel, cook, go to concerts and has a new obsession with the TV show 24. Someday Ashley … More »

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