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Studying America up close

CHESTERTOWN — CHESTERTOWN -- They have seen the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the National Aquarium in Baltimore. They've been to a minor league baseball game, and they saw the Fourth of July parade in Rock Hall.

Now, they're eagerly anticipating trips to the United Nations in New York and the "shrines of democracy" in Washington.

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But the enduring memories that many in this group of young Muslims will take home are of a freewheeling session with Margo Bailey, the roll-up-her-sleeves mayor of this town of 4,100, and of the lush little campus of Washington College at the top of the hill.

Maheen Asbreena Karim, the 21-year-old daughter of university professors at Rajshahi University in Bangladesh who listed women's rights as among her interests of study, was fascinated with Bailey's no-nonsense approach to male employees in town government and impressed with her casual self-assurance.

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"I'm very liberal in my country, and I don't think religion should be a barrier for women," said Karim, who sometimes chafes at her father's insistence that she follow her parents' path as college lecturers. "Women's rights are essential to Islam, but sometimes Islam is hard because people make it hard."

Planned on short notice even as U.S. troops were beginning the invasion of Iraq, the four-week American Studies Institute ends Aug. 1. The program aims to give 21 elite undergraduate students from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan an intensive look at U.S. culture and democracy, including an intimate look at small-town life in this 300-year-old riverfront village.

Backed with a $200,000 grant from the State Department, the idea is to present a favorable spin on American democracy to counter deep disapproval and skepticism about U.S. foreign policy in South Asia and the rest of the Muslim world.

"This is the first time in 20 or 25 years we've sought out undergraduates for a serious academic program like this," said Thomas A. Farrell, who coordinates academic and cultural programs at the State Department. "We're getting at the heart of values and motivations of our society and of their cultures. We hope to whet their appetites for America and have them go home and talk about it."

The institute at Washington College is one of three similar federally funded programs across the country for undergraduates this summer, including one for Iraqis at Southern Illinois University and another for Middle Eastern students at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

Chestertown - 90 minutes from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington - seemed ideal, said Edward Ladd "Ted" Widmer, who heads Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience.

"I suppose you could say it's a cost-effective form of diplomacy and the best kind of diplomacy, because it allows them to learn for themselves," said Widmer, a Harvard-educated historian who served as a speechwriter in the Clinton administration.

"Sometimes you don't know how good an idea is until you throw it together," said Widmer, who expects the State Department to renew the program next summer. "It turns out Chestertown is perfect because you can really see the process of how a community works here."

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Students who arrived June 29 at the Eastern Shore campus were selected from among thousands of applicants by U.S. embassies in their home countries.

Ranging in age from 20 to 27, the 12 women and nine men all come from privileged backgrounds; they are the sons and daughters of diplomats, professors, government officials or businessmen. All speak impeccable English, virtually all oppose the U.S. war in Iraq and most are critical of what they perceive as U.S. arrogance toward the United Nations.

"There is a lot of anger toward the U.S. in India, and not just [among] Muslims," said 20-year-old Farrah Ahmed. "A lot of people disagree with American policy, but they distinguish between the government and what the people are like. People here should realize that one in five people in the world is a Muslim," she said.

Ahmed covers her head with a scarf, a personal choice for the daughter of an Indian businessman whose family lived for years in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Most others in the group dress like U.S. students, though a tad more modestly. All say they are inundated with American culture via TV and the Internet.

"A lot of people back home might think I'm a bad Muslim because I don't cover my head," said Nazia Y. Izuddin, a 20-year-old law student from New Delhi, India. "But I don't want to live up to other people's expectations. Everyone has a different perspective on Islam."

Institute participants have been amazed at their relationship with professors and officials and by the casual ease of Widmer and program coordinator Kees de Mooy, who have played cricket and soccer with their charges.

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"The professors here are so much more accessible, knowledge here in the U.S. is so much more accessible," said 22-year-old Ali Nawaz Khan, the son of a mining consultant from Pakistan. "I think there is pressure on all of us, as well as on the Americans, because there are so many misconceptions on both sides. Pakistan has been on the hot seat for several years now as an ally of the U.S."

The students say they have maintained a healthy skepticism about the picture of America they have been presented.

"People back home might say we are brainwashed, but that is absolutely not true," said Ahmed. "There's no free lunch, but as far as I can see, the State Department has not tried to dictate anything."


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