The Summer Institute is a new immersive two-week creative writing and cultural exchange program held in Iowa City, Iowa, a UNESCO City of Literature as part of the International Writers’ Program, for 30 participants age 18-22 from Pakistan, India, and the US.

In the beginning, it was about going to Iowa; the vanity of it all – the idea of infiltrating elusive literary factory where so much incredible writing had been produced, and the thought of simply breathing that air. It was a sense of accomplishment and validation, the two-point-something overall acceptance rate, the anticipation of literally living out parts of Ann Patchett’s memoir.

I looked forward to the writing workshops and craft lessons hungrily; I wanted reams of feedback and the opportunity to hone my technique. I’d even made a list of all my weaknesses and the aspects of my writing I wanted to work on; I was prepared for a transformative literary boot-camp. And a transformative literary boot-camp is exactly what I got, but in all the ways I didn’t expect.

When I received the mammoth 400-odd page reader a few weeks before the programme started, I bought a new notebook and prepared myself to make copious amounts of technical, craft-oriented notes. But somewhere between the first page and the fiftieth – a section of the manuscript of Haider and selected poems from Faiz’s collections – something strange happened. I began to lose myself in the content of what I was reading.

Until I received the course pack, I had almost forgotten what the Summer Institute was about.

Of course I knew it would have a heavy focus on the Partition and deal with contemporary political issues. It was made up of mainly Pakistanis and Indians (I didn’t quite understand what the Americans were doing there yet), but I didn’t anticipate the level of visceral engagement we would have with the history of South Asia.

As I read the course pack, finding myself in tears over the works of Malcolm X and Manto, I began piecing together snippets of what my grandparents told me about their own experiences with the Partition. I saw the violence that played out on the pages in front of me and couldn’t help but think about my family and where I came from. The idea that my motherlands were somewhere in Pakistan, in places I didn’t have access to, was not something I thought about a lot before – certainly not with any semblance of profundity – apart from when I would make witty comments about the irony of my nana’s life, how he was born in Hyderabad, Pakistan and died in Hyderabad, India. But when I was thrown into a WhatsApp group halfway through the course pack and two weeks before my flight, I was suddenly friends with 10 Pakistanis.

And then it dawned on me, I’d never met a Pakistani before.

My professors and friends gave me all sorts of warnings before I left: “I’m sure the Pakistanis will be lovely but they’re conservative so take care not to offend them”; “I know you’re already a left-liberal type, but don’t come back a separatist”; or “I’m telling you, don’t fall in love with a Pakistani man!” I didn’t share the same concerns as them, but I was nervous about how our differences would pan out. I was nervous about whether I would be accepted, not as an Indian, but as me. Yet the night I landed and I met my friends in Iowa City, the first thing that struck me was an overwhelming sense of belonging.

We began classes and workshops together, and they were wildly different from what I imagined. We shared our opinions in them, but also our experiences of oppression and discrimination. We didn’t talk about how Aga Shahid Ali and Nikki Giovanni wrote poetry as much as we spoke about how they made us feel – and on the first day, that infuriated me. “Why is this group therapy?” I raged to my mother on the phone. “I love the instructors and the students, but we’re not talking about craft nearly enough.”

My mother told me to be patient. “Maybe they’re teaching you writing in different ways.”

I rolled my eyes, knowing full well that she couldn’t see me on the phone. “I am Type-A,” I told my roommate, sounding far more obnoxious than I had bargained for. “I don’t know why we have to do all this feelings-stuff, can’t we just get down to work?”

But by Day three, I was already feeling stuff, and eventually, I realised that was the work. I mentioned in passing that I had actually never seen pictures of Sindh despite being half Sindhi, and immediately, my friend from Karachi whipped out his phone and began showing me photographs of his favourite places. He showed me his laptop case, made of traditional Sindhi fabric, and I couldn’t help visualise my grandmother carrying a handbag made of the same cloth.

As I saw pictures of Pakistan, and another friend from Lahore began telling me about where my paternal grandfather was from, I could almost see him playing gilli-danda in the streets like he told me he did when he was a little boy.

Memories of my grandparents resurfaced, and I didn’t know how not to cry. “It’s hard to explain it,” I texted my friends. “But we’re all the same.”

Throughout my time in Iowa, I was astounded by how similar all of us were – the Indians, Pakistanis and Americans. We would talk about policy and impending trade deals over dinner until our conversations devolved into giggle-fits over a meme. We would steal fries off each other’s plates and suddenly burst into Nicki Minaj songs. Bollywood, unsurprisingly, united us. And even though I knew Pakistanis (and some Americans) watched Bollywood, the fact that we were able to discuss the intricacies of DDLJ together blew my mind.

The Americans stepped out of their roles as third-party observers and became one of us desis – we swapped recipes and movie recommendations, spoke about the books we read and the ones we hoped the write. The Pakistanis and Indians discovered how we consume the same media, are the products of very similar education systems and strongly relate to Tumblr posts about desi moms.

The most profound rediscovery, however, was that we spoke the same language and called it different names.

As the programme went on, we began to love each other – all thirty of us – over Cards Against Humanity nights and classes where my friends cried as they told stories about discrimination and persecution. We were vulnerable with each other, no holds barred, and we connected. So when it was time to leave, after a night of speeches and notebook-signings, and a morning of uncontrollable tears, I had to admit to myself that having done all the “feelings-stuff”, I emerged from this literary boot-camp of empathy a vastly different person.

My writing has improved, of course, and I did take away reams of feedback and critique on my style. But more than that, my writing has evolved into something that contains empathy and conviction – it feels more powerful now.

Around two weeks after Summer Institute ended and we flew back home, the magnitude of the issues we were dealing with during the course of the Summer Institute hit us. Two of our friends – both politically active students living in Kashmir – sent us panic-stricken messages informing us that they suspected Article 370 and 35A would be revoked. They told us to take care of ourselves and said they loved us. A day later, they disappeared. All at once, the conflicts of our subcontinent became more personal than they ever were before.

Our friends were severed from us. People in Kashmir were no longer faceless crowds I felt empathy and wanted to advocate for, they were people I knew and loved. They were people I watched Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and went to book readings with, the people I swapped stories with at 2 am.

As panic drowned the 28 of us living outside Kashmir, our WhatsApp group was full of messages to the tune of, “Would the government take the same decisions if they knew even a handful of Kashmiris the way we did?”

For us, the IWP was humanising. It was about connection – and that connection isn’t just necessary for writers. If not everyone, at least policymakers and politicians should have the opportunity to take part in a sort of immersive, transformative boot-camp in connection and empathy. Because, as one of our instructors, Anam Zakaria, at the IWP argued, “We will always fight if we don’t see the people on the other side.” And it was seeing people on the other side – laughing and crying and falling in love with them – that made the Summer Institute as incredible as it was. For me, Iowa City is about something I never thought it would be: walking down the street in a thirty-odd person contagion, loudly laughing, and discovering that we are all the same.