This past weekend, around 500 students from all over the United States came to Georgetown for the National Collegiate Security Conference, hosted by the Georgetown International Relations Association. I had the pleasure of mingling with students from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, like Harvard, the University of Chicago and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

I remember being a freshman three NCSCs ago, staring with a mixture of awe and terror at the gray-clad, Star Trek-esque West Pointers – awe, of course, because they were big, buff and significantly older than me. I was terrified, however, because back then, I automatically associated anything to do with the American military as bad.

Having moved from Pakistan just a few months into the coalition forces’ war in Afghanistan and having then lived in Saudi Arabia through the first four years of the Iraq war, my natural reaction to the American military was fear. In my third year at Georgetown – and in the United States – I’m now not so quick to judge.

Before, I only heard one side of the issue – the anti-American slogans chanted in the streets of Pakistan, the uproar against the Abu Ghraib scandal in Saudi Arabia – and, don’t get me wrong, there were some very legitimate reasons behind these opinions, alongside the many exaggerated reasons.

Living in D.C. for two full years has shifted my mindset. After interacting with soldiers who have finished a term in either Afghanistan or Iraq, or people who are looking to enter the armed services, my initial fear of uniformed folk has been softened as a result of my experiences in the United States.

I have had the experience of sitting next to a private dressed in camouflage on a flight to Fort Smith, Ark., who requested that his seat be changed after hearing me greet my mother on the phone with “Assalam Alaikum.” But I have also had the experience of discussing predator drone attacks on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border while sitting in Bangkok Bistro with a Model U.N. delegate from West Point. I have seen photographs of Lynddie England giving the thumbs up to a camera as she stands next to a naked Abu Ghraib prisoner, but I have also seen photographs of U.S. military personnel flying helicopters down to the mountainous regions of Pakistan as part of a relief effort after the area was rocked by a devastating earthquake.

I’m hoping that, somewhere, there is an American soldier returning from Iraq whose previous perceptions of Middle Easterners or Muslims have become more objective. Newspapers and news channels promise us objectivity, but true objectivity can never be achieved unless one experiences both sides of an issue for oneself.

I have been fortunate enough to be flung unsuspectingly into two extremes, and have managed to reconcile previous opinions with new thoughts, previous presumptions with new revelations. I believe that the noblest and hardest thing of all is for someone to actively and purposely place him or herself in a situation in which he or she gains a perspective that is outside of his or her comfort zone. It’s definitely hard – it would be the equivalent of Shaquille O’Neal putting on a leotard and trying to fit into the tiny little shoes of Shawn Johnson, the Olympic gymnast, in order to see things from her perspective. But the reward of knowledge and clarity can make up for it all.

If I, as a Pashtun woman from Northwest Pakistan, can sit down and have a candid conversation with a West Point cadet about the merits of various types of sushi, there is still hope in the world.

Hijab Shah is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She can be reached at shahthehoya.com. Behind the Veil appears every other Friday.

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