Features | Campus

The journey of 15 young women from Afghanistan to AUB

Fall 2019/Winter 2020

After a long, rigorous journey, 15 of the best and brightest Afghan women made AUB their new home. Their arrival was made possible by the newly established merit-based scholarship program Education for Leadership in Crisis
(ELC), which is funded by the US Department of State through the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy
in Kabul. The students, selected on the basis of their academic performance and potential for leadership,
will spend four years at AUB pursuing an undergraduate degree and working towards developing leadership skills and strategies to tackle a variety of daunting challenges back in Afghanistan.

MainGate spoke with ELC director Dr. Carmen Geha about the demanding process of outreach and recruitment across 23 provinces in Afghanistan that brought the first ELC cohort to AUB this fall.

Q. How did this program start?

A. For a number of years, I have been involved in different scholarship programs for youth from all over the Arab region. These programs bring students to AUB not only to learn but also to contribute to the university’s global mission. The students are change makers who influence the campus through their stories and journeys. When the US Embassy in Kabul announced their call for proposals, I leapt at the opportunity to help design a proposal. Working with Dr. Fadia Homeidan at AUB’s Office of Grants and Contracts, we decided to direct our request towards young Afghan women with the idea that an educational experience at AUB would enable them to reflect on leadership crisis and develop the skills needed to address it. ELC is partly an academic scholarship and partly a purposeful investment in the future of women in Afghanistan.

Q. Tell us about the recruitment process. How did you spread the word to different provinces?

A. Since we could not be physically present in Afghanistan, AUB partnered with a local NGO called Women for Afghan Women (WAW). WAW had offices in 13 provinces and extensive experience working on gender issues and protecting women from violence. Together we devised a recruitment strategy that included town hall meetings, school visits, flyers, social media advertisements, and television and radio announcements. WAW did a brilliant job in opening up networks and building trust with local actors to encourage girls to apply. We received 400 applications for 15 slots.

Q. What motivated the applicants to go through this complex process? What kind of obstacles did they face?

A. The students are amazing. In all my years of teaching, I have never seen such bravery, courage, and determination to learn. The students have overcome unimaginable personal, political, and security challenges to get to where they are today. Some students had to convince their parents, while others were encouraged by their parents to come to AUB. Many of them had heard about AUB’s reputation, and some knew more about its history than I did. One obstacle that stuck with me during the recruitment process was the security issue in and around Kabul. The applicants literally had to avoid bombings, kidnappings, and long dangerous travel in order to submit applications, take the English exams, and sit for interviews.

Q. Can you tell us more about the students who applied?

A. While living with the legacy of the Taliban, these women were remarkably brave and resolute. You would think that their experiences would have made them bitter or apathetic but they are positively radiant, funny, kind, and hardworking. One student was an English teacher working summers from 5 a.m. until the afternoon teaching older adults. Her English is impeccable; her demeanor and drive are contagious. Almost all of these women want a career in politics or business. They say that they came to study here in order to invest in themselves and lift up their communities. The program coordinator Cyrine Ghannouchi and I had to hold back tears in most of the initial interviews.

Q. How did the students who were admitted to AUB deal with the move to Lebanon?

A. I think that it is difficult for any young woman to leave her country and go study abroad, especially if abroad means Beirut. AUB has been making great strides in a country and region that continues to suffer the consequences of bad policies and crumbling infrastructure. It is not easy for an 18-year-old girl anywhere to prioritize higher education. Frankly, while the students expressed that their families were concerned and worried about their well-being, we did not face insurmountable challenges. On the first day of classes, one student came crying to me saying she missed her family. I video-called her mother who was encouraging her to stay strong! Here I need to thank Dr. Samar Harkouss and the wonderful team at AUB’s University Preparatory Program (UPP) for providing the students with support, lectures, and workshops to ease their transition from home and to life on campus and in the broader Beirut community.

Q. How are the students adapting to life at AUB?

A. They are learning to fit in very quickly. These are very serious, studious, and hardworking young women. ELC is part of Leadership, Equity, and Diversity (LEAD), a wider initiative directed by Dr. Malek Tabbal. LEAD works towards greater diversity and inclusion in AUB and provides ELC with great programmatic support, especially in terms of liaising with various units across the university to make sure the students are safe and well integrated. We also work closely with Hala Dimechkie and the whole team at the Office of International Programs who have offered their invaluable experience in terms of securing visas and residency. Cyrine, who I mentioned earlier, is also my graduate research assistant and a master’s degree student in public policy and international affairs. She has been staunchly dedicated to all the students, offering moral and technical support, and follow-up. Last, but not least, credit is due to the amazing freshman advising program at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, initiated by Dean Nadia El Cheikh and directed by Dr. Sabine Khoury. This has made course registration and integration a very efficient and enjoyable process. The program teaches ELC students about liberal arts and pairs them with advisers and mentors at a time when they need them the most.

Q. How are you planning to move forward with this project?

A. With an eye on providing this opportunity to young Afghan men as well, we applied for more funds and we were delighted to have received an additional $3 million from the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs through the US Embassy in Kabul in order to welcome another cohort of 29 students. I hope that in the future, we can leverage AUB’s contacts in Afghanistan, including AUB alumni, President Ashraf Ghani, and First Lady Rola Ghani, who is of Lebanese origin. Right now however, all our focus is on the students’ well-being. We hope they get good grades and transition into their majors of choice. Next semester, we start with the leadership component of the program, which includes a final capstone project to take place in Afghanistan. We will keep you posted!


Sidiqa Kamran

“I had heard about AUB from The Envoy, a book I read by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. He was an AUB student from Afghanistan back in the ’70s, along with our current president Ashraf Ghani. Now that I and my fellow scholars have taken this step, I am hearing more and more about women in our community being inspired and encouraged to take similar steps as well.”

Zobaida Jamal

“After I was accepted, my friends found it strange that I would choose to go from Afghanistan to this part of the world since most students would go to places that are familiar to Afghanis in general. Now that I am here at AUB, I am very happy and satisfied that I made this choice. I found my dream university. I hope that by coming here I will be able to inspire other Afghan students to apply for this scholarship.”