Founder of Initiative to Educate Afghan Women to Speak at RSC Sept. 22

September 21, 2010 at 12:00 pm

"Only the educated are free" - Epictetus

Inspired by the plight of Afghan women during the reign of the Taliban, Paula Nirschel, a former community mental health worker, founded the Rhode Island based Initiative to Educate Afghan Women in 2002. Committed to making a difference in the lives of young Afghan women, Nirschel started the program determined to offer an education to some of the country's highly motivated young women. Two Afghan students arrived at Russell Sage College this summer as part of the Initiative. Nirschel will be speaking at Founder's Day Convocation on Wednesday, September 22 from 12:30 1:30 p.m. at Bush Memorial at Russell Sage College, an event attended by many Women of Influence, including Meena and Yagana, the two Afghan RSC students. To date, the Initiative has provided an education for 76 young women in this country at a number of colleges and universities; eight students arrived in this country this year. The Initiative offers a full four -year scholarship with airfare provided through private donations. All of the students personal expenses at RSC are covered by Sage.

During a recent convocation for incoming students, Dr. Susan Scrimshaw, president of The Sage Colleges, alluded to the Afghan women as, already Women of Influence and acknowledged having them here, at Sage, is our commitment to peace.

Both in their early twenties, Meena, from Kabul and Yagana from Kandahar, have witnessed atrocities in their country; they find it very peaceful here in Troy, NY. The challenges in their country are vastly different than those that most of us experience on a day-to-day basis. These young students are curious and highly motivated. They have big dreams and carry hope in their hearts for the way things could be in their country of origin. They want to obtain an education so that they can make a difference in their own country once they return. Yagana is a pre-law major and Meena is studying international relations. They are happy and eager to learn. What do they want to learn while here? Aside from their academic pursuits, they want to learn how to dance. But they will not dance in front of men. Their religion forbids that.

While at Sage, the details of the girls daily lives will be coordinated by Sabrina McGinty, Director of Cultural Enrichment and Diversity. McGinty will ensure that the girls are able to participate in religious and cultural experiences that reflect their background and will assist the girls with all facets of their academic and personal lives while here. That includes things such as arranging for meals after sundown on days when they are required to fast due to religious observances.

Both Meena and Yagana speak English very well, are westernized in their dress and keep in touch with their families and friends through email and Skype. Once a year the girls will return home. During the summers, the girls are tasked with making a contribution for the betterment of women in their country, a prerequisite to participation in the Initiative. Last summer, Yagana assisted her mom, a health care worker, who was helping a young suicide survivor, a young woman who had tried to kill herself by swallowing nails rather than marry an older unwanted suitor. It is estimated that between sixty to eighty percent of young Afghan women are forced into arranged marriages with older men. Many of the women are younger than seventeen.

Meena and Yagana have been in this country for about a year attending high school in preparation for their college educations. At home, they have sisters and brothers and friends, and memories of a country and a culture that is vastly different than the one they are presently experiencing. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate. The average life expectancy for woman is 45 years. One of every three Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence.

In their country, they hide their faces, identities, and books under billowing garments. Here, they can be found on campus juggling their books, friends and schedules, most notably with their glowing faces uncovered. Born in a country where women are oppressed, subjugated and diminished, here they flourish their resilience, determination and indomitable spirits absolutely irrepressible.

While at Sage, the girls are taking courses to help them integrate into our culture and our community, classes such as Syb Jennings WORLD (Women Owning Responsibility for Learning and Doing) courses. Part of the General Education program required of all students at Sage, the program provides students with a global perspective while instilling respect for the diversity of communities and tacking the educational challenges facing women. Jennings, a professor of psychology, coordinates the program and is thrilled to be working with the students from Afghanistan. Jennings acknowledges that the real education for many of those at Sage is taking place right in the residence halls. Jennings believes that the Afghan girls provide a living history lesson for other students. By living in close proximity on campus with other students and by sharing their stories and experiences and their hopes and dreams, they are not only students, but teachers as well in our global community.