Summer Classes, Mentors Support Pakistani Women’s Growth

Hijab Khan against skyline of Lahore, Pakistan
Hijab Khan is one of three Pakistani students who participated virtually in classes and mentoring opportunities through the U.S.-Sister2Sister program hosted by UC Davis this summer. (Courtesy)

Hijab Khan of Pakistan is an environmental engineering student 7,500 miles and a pandemic away from UC Davis. But still, she has inspired at least one student here, gained a mentor and had what she considers one of the most valuable experiences of her life.

Khan is one of three female students from Pakistan who participated — virtually — in two summer courses and individual mentorships at UC Davis through the U.S.-Sister2Sister Exchange Program.

“Without a doubt, it is one of the best experiences of my life,” said Khan, who is entering her final year of undergraduate study at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, Pakistan.

Led by American University and funded primarily by the U.S. Department of State, Sister2Sister enables about 20 Pakistani women each summer to participate in undergraduate courses at American universities. The courses are mostly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

The program invited UC Davis to be a hosting partner, and this was the campus’s first summer to do so. A total of eight universities provided opportunities for 16 Pakistani women.

“It’s the perfect fit for us given UC Davis’ emphasis on access and equity in STEM education as well as on global engagement and learning,” said Michael Lazzara, associate vice provost of academic programs and partnerships for Global Affairs.

Sister2Sister aims to help young women “overcome cultural limitations that inhibit their participation" in pursuing competitive careers, and to contribute to Pakistan’s economy, according to the program’s website.

“The ability of these young women to complete university is not a given,” said Beth Broome, senior advisor to the provost on STEM Strategies at UC Davis.

Faculty and peer mentors

Global Affairs and STEM Strategies partnered to create an experience that would be enriching not only for the Pakistani students but also for UC Davis students and faculty. The exchange students audited a course related to their field of study as well as a new course on preparing to be a professional in diverse and global settings. In what was an Aggie bonus, UC Davis paired each student with faculty and peer mentors.

For all Sister2Sister participants, UC Davis also hosted a virtual discussion in which UC Davis women faculty and others shared how they overcome barriers and stereotypes in STEM to develop their careers in academia, research and industry.

The highlight of the whole program has to have been the one-on-one sessions that I had with both of my mentors — Hijab Khan

Khan is hungry for learning opportunities. She said she wants to earn a doctoral degree, get experience in international settings and then return to Pakistan to help address some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For Sister2Sister, Khan said she was thrilled to be matched with UC Davis — she knew the campus was ranked fifth in the nation and sixth in the world in environmental science and engineering.

UC Davis’ two other matches are majoring in applied biosciences and food science and technology at Pakistani universities.

Khan said her UC Davis classes included students from several countries. “The diversity was there,” she said. “It was a beautiful amalgamation.”

‘Healthy and fruitful conversations’

Closeup of Ansley Guillebeau
Ansley Guillebeau

Serving as mentors to Khan were transfer student Ansley Guillebeau, who is on track to complete a degree in environmental engineering this fall, and Colleen Bronner, an associate professor of teaching in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“The highlight of the whole program has to have been the one-on-one sessions that I had with both of my mentors," Khan said. “We would have very healthy and fruitful conversations.”

Guillebeau said she was inspired by Khan’s passion for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. “That inspired me to recommit to the lens of sustainability,” said the Aggie, who plans to pursue graduate studies and be a consultant for water quality and treatment.

Closeup of Colleen Bronner
Colleen Bronner

Bronner was a natural fit as a mentor for Khan. She has research interests in diversity and inclusion in engineering and is faculty advisor to the campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

Bronner said she and Khan talked about the workings of academic programs, graduate school, women in engineering, science misinformation and more. She said she enjoyed the meetings and even sought Khan’s input on a First-Year Seminar she is redeveloping into an upper division course on social justice and engineering solutions to global socio-technical problems.

“Mentoring relationships flow both ways,” said Bronner, adding she and Khan have agreed to continue to talk every other week.

“I’ve never had a mentor before,” Khan said. “I’m blessed.”

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