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College Welcomes First Afghan Students

Date Posted: September 25, 2005

  Basiri and Waziri
Sadiqa Basiri (left) and Malalay Waziri
(photo by Donna Cote)

Watching TV after 9/11, Paula Nirschel began to see how many women in Afghanistan were being denied education. So she decided to do something about it. She founded the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW), and four years later, the program has 20 Afghan students enrolled at ten colleges and universities across the United States, paid for by scholarships and additional funding from IEAW. Nirschel travels to Afghanistan each summer to meet and interview students, who go through a rigorous application process. Once the students are selected, Nirschel begins the search for the right institution for the women.

Mount Holyoke seemed the perfect fit for Sadiqa Basiri, the founder of four girls' schools in rural areas of Afghanistan, and Malalay Waziri, an accountant with the British Embassy in Kabul. They will be the first women from Afghanistan to attend the College. “Mount Holyoke is about as good as it gets,” Nirschel said. “It’s the second all-women’s college we’ve placed students in, which is perfect for them since they are very traditional and for the most part have attended segregated schools. I’m thrilled to have students here. The school’s long history, success, and strong international program make it a model school.” Nirschel said another attraction of Mount Holyoke was the College’s Frances Perkins program, for women of nontraditional age. “Because these women were hidden for five years, they all have had an interruption in their education,” Nirschel said. Her mission to bring bright and capable women to the United States was an easy fit for Mount Holyoke’s vision of educating for global citizenship. "Mount Holyoke is an extraordinarily global and diverse learning environment committed to advancing women's education worldwide,” said Jane Brown, vice president for enrollment and College relations at Mount Holyoke. “So we are delighted to welcome Malalay and Sadiqa to our community, two bright and courageous students who will use their Mount Holyoke education to help rebuild Afghanistan and will lead the way in educating many Afghani women in the future."

In Pakistan, Basiri was teaching computer science, and she and one of her students, Waziri, both applied to the IEAW program. They went through the application process, filling out forms and interviewing with Nirschel via satellite so she could assess their English skills. IEAW students are chosen based on high academic standards, keen English skills, and the desire to return home after graduation to use their education to improve life for all in Afghanistan. The students also travel home together every summer to work for reconstruction and to help support their families.

When Basiri and Waziri found out they were both accepted at Mount Holyoke, they couldn’t believe it. “Sadiqa was my teacher. I was surprised we got accepted at the same school,” said Waziri, 24.

While this is Waziri’s first time in the United States, Basiri, 25, has been in the country several times, mostly for conferences on women’s rights. She went to Washington, DC, to help authorize the Bill for Afghan Women and was an intern for the Women’s Edge Coalition. She also attended the Beijing+10 Conference in 2005 in New York. She wants to study political science and help Afghanistan in development and education. In Kabul, she founded the Omid Learning Center, a nonprofit focusing on educating girls. She went to university for one month in Pakistan before the Taliban closed all schools for girls. Basiri recently was a guest on On Point, a show on WBUR, Boston’s NPR radio station, to talk about the schools she built in Afghanistan and the opportunity to get an education in the U.S.

Waziri, who completed one year at a university in Pakistan, wants to study international relations and economics and work in a political organization. “I hope we can go back and do something good. I’d like to have a key position in diplomacy to achieve that.” While she said it’s been hard adjusting to life in the United States, she said everybody at the College has been very encouraging. “I’m thankful to God, to Paula Nirschel, and to Mount Holyoke College.”

Basiri has been especially impressed by the community’s acceptance of her religion and by the gift of prayer mats from the Center for Global Initiatives. “People said I was crazy for coming here because people aren’t accepting of Muslims in a post-9/11 world,” she said. “Now I see people giving attention to my religion, and it means a lot. There’s a focus on spiritual life for everyone here.”

She is also excited to be at a women’s college. “Discrimination is worldwide, not just in my country. When I went to DC, I was surprised to learn that women make less than men. Here is the country that wants to bring democracy to my country, and the women don’t make as much.”

On the Web:

The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women

Frances Perkins Program

Copyright © 2006 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on June 13, 2006.