Ahmad Shoaib's first day on an American campus was a whirlwind. Delayed by visa problems, the 27-year-old Fulbright recipient from Afghanistan missed student orientation at Duke University, and when he arrived in Durham, N.C., classes had already started.
"I just rushed to campus, jet-lagged, confused, not knowing what I was supposed to do, and they sent me to class," he says with a laugh.
Despite the inauspicious start, Shoaib (who asked to be referred to by only his first and middle names because of safety concerns in Afghanistan) describes his time earning a master's degree in engineering management at Duke as a "life changing" experience.
"It's quite a humbling opportunity to have access to some of the best institutions in the world and be able to sit down and have conversations with one of the most educated group of people I've ever met," he says.
The U.S. State Department is rebuilding academic ties with war-torn Afghanistan after being absent for almost a quarter-century. When the Soviet army invaded, in 1979, the Fulbright Program in the country was suspended. Reinstated in 2003, it is now supporting a small but growing number of students, mostly at the graduate level. Shoaib was one of 47 Afghans who were in America on Fulbrights in the 2010-11 academic year. That number is expected to rise to 60 this year.
Shoaib received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in Malaysia, and he wanted to continue his studies abroad but lacked the funds. He heard about the Fulbright Program from friends and decided to apply, though an ill-timed power blackout almost cost him the opportunity. "I remember the day of the deadline, rushing to the local Internet cafe because I had all my documents ready and I wanted to fill out the application, and all of a sudden the lights go off and the computers shut down," he says. "I'm like, Oh, my God, if I miss this chance, then there's no way around it. I'd have to wait an entire year to have the chance to apply again."
Luckily, the cafe's back-up generators kicked in, and Shoaib hit "send" before the deadline.
The episode is a sign of some of the difficulties that Afghan applicants face—and a lesson for Fulbright officials, Shoaib says.
As a member of a relatively well-off family in Kabul, where his father is a government official, he can get regular, if spotty, access to the Internet. Students elsewhere in the country can't. "The standard Internet application wouldn't be accessible to the average student," he says.
After being selected from hundreds of Fulbright applicants, Shoaib enrolled in Duke's engineering school, where, he says, he liked the focus on incorporating business practices into the curriculum and felt challenged to perform well. "In America, the work ethic is extremely different. It's much more competitive, it's much more rigorous, and it's very, very merit-based."
While at the university, he sought to clear up misperceptions about life in Afghanistan. For example, he emphasized that despite the insurgency and the violence, there's a burgeoning private sector, and that most Afghans are not so different from Americans.
"People understand the security situation is complicated," he says, "but people also know that behind the noise which is shown in the media there are millions of people living their lives on a daily basis. They are continuing to work and earn a living."
Shoaib completed his course requirements a semester early, receiving his degree in September. Shortly afterward, he flew home to Afghanistan, where he plans to work to improve the country's infrastructure and electrical grid, perhaps helping to cut down on the blackouts that almost scuttled his Fulbright application.
He admits that part of him wanted to stay longer in America, to continue his respite from the instability and struggle back home.
"The hesitancy is there," he says. "If anybody denies it, they'd be lying to you, because the circumstances are very, very tough."
Indeed, he says, there's a certain risk in being a recipient of a U.S.-government scholarship, which could make him a target of the Taliban or kidnappers for ransom.
But he says the Fulbright Program helped reinforce his resolve by occasionally bringing together the scholarship students from Afghanistan, who inspired him with their commitment to return and contribute to their society.
"If I'm not doing that, I'm not doing this program justice," he says. "And I don't think I'd be doing myself justice."