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We all dream of changing the world — this was my opportunity

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The bombs in Pakistan didn't faze Diane Hall.

And the people in the south Asian nation didn't mesh with the horrors she'd seen on western television.

Last April's visit proved the trip-of-a-lifetime for the 52-year-old Bermudian, a former Bermuda High School head girl.

The women in Pakistan were particularly impressed with her accomplishments in fields traditionally dominated by men. Ms Hall is an engineer and a volunteer firefighter in San Jose, California.

How'd you end up visiting Pakistan?

I teach at San Jose State University in California. We have a partnership with a university in Pakistan, Allama Iqbal Open University. AIOU does a lot of its work by correspondence. They have somewhere around one million students and they mail out all the assignments and the students mail them back to them. San Jose State is helping AIOU enhance its computer science degree. The intent is to try and train students in remote areas, where literacy is quite low, to do software engineering. The idea is that they then stay in the areas doing online work rather than moving into a big city. It gets more money into those areas and more education and hopefully improves the quality of life there. I've been involved in the last year because I'm helping train the faculty to teach online. It's quite different than teaching in a classroom.

You spoke with the students about your experience as a female engineer. How did that come about?

I went to Pakistan with two objectives: 1. To train as many faculty as I could how to teach online with science-based classes — I think I ended up training about 70 faculty members. 2. My objective, since I am female, was to talk about being a female in a male-dominated profession. I've been an engineer and a firefighter. The main reason Mark [Adams the San Jose State project manager] wanted to me to talk was because I did all these male things and he wanted me to encourage women to study computer science or whatever they wanted to do.

What was Pakistan like?

I went there for ten days and it was an amazing experience. [Living in the Western world] you're given an impression of what Pakistan is. In the US there's a lot of negative information — it's not well educated, the Taliban are there and it's just all evil people. It's totally not true. Yes, it was dangerous but I didn't feel I was in harm's way. We walked around, met local people, and they let us know what the real Pakistan was like.

At the university we were treated so very well. Their hospitality was wonderful. The food was awesome. Everyone was so friendly and open. In the main cities, many of the people I was training were women. Education is very highly regarded but as you move into the more rural, tribal areas, they're less free. AIOU teaches women in tribal areas — everything from basic hygiene to reading and writing. It's all scheduled around their time in the fields.

You credited your parents with your career success in a speech you gave to AIOU staff on your return to San Jose State. Can you explain a bit more?

They believed that I could have any career that I wanted. My father is an accountant, my mother is a nurse, but they felt I could have any career — whether a traditionally male career or a traditionally female career. There was never a question about whether I was going to university or not. In fact, I was in university before I realised some people finished high school and didn't go to university. But that was never an option in my family. They emphasised education and demanded excellence in my studies. They gave me access to very good schools and they made sure I took advantage of that. It was always, “You must do your best”, because they understood the value of education. As a child I probably didn't understand it as much. Today I really appreciate the fact that they pushed me hard so that I could get, basically, anything I wanted to do.

When you mentioned the trip to your parents, were they at all concerned that you were visiting a nation in turmoil?

I told them it was all about the opportunity I was being presented with — to go to Pakistan and help them with their education. We all dream of changing the world, this was my opportunity. One of the reasons [the US State Department funded the project was its aim] to help countries that are poor improve their quality of life and reduce radicalisation. The true Islamic faith is nothing like it's being portrayed.

Muslims themselves are very respectful, warm and giving people. They're not supposed to kill. They're as horrified as we are [with what's happening].

Did you witness any bombings?

A couple of bombs went off while we were there. One they refused to put in the news. They didn't want to give people the satisfaction of acknowledging what happened. They said no, we can't let them disrupt our lives. We have to carry on.

What did you take from the experience?

How wonderfully friendly and open they were and how much they want the education.

Diane Hall (centre) in Pakistan with her colleagues at San Jose State University. (Photo supplied)
Staff at Allama Iqbal Open University preparing to mail course material. Most of the university's one million students take correspondence courses. (Photo supplied)

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Published March 05, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated March 05, 2015 at 12:56 am)

We all dream of changing the world — this was my opportunity

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