A little over four years ago, I wrote about Wazhma Sadat, the first female Afghan student to graduate from Yale. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Ms. Sadat lived there until the Taliban’s violent presence led her family to flee to Pakistan. There, she continued to go to school, and was able to return to Afghanistan in 2001 when the Taliban fell. At 14, she took an exam to study abroad in the US – it was a very competitive program, but it ultimately brought her to the US for her senior year of high school. She struggled with the prejudice from her fellow students, and with learning and studying in another language. Her first assignment in her American history class received an F.
But Sadat persevered – she put in the effort to study and eventually received an A+ in the course. With the aid of mentors and role models along the way, Sadat met with a Yale Admissions Officer and was accepted into the program in 2010. At first, she hesitated to correct her peers about their ignorant assessments about Afghanistan, and even struggled to tell people where she was from. But slowly, she began speaking up about her past and expressing her opinions in class settings. And this confidence led to other efforts – she gave a public Ted Talk, she studied the Taliban and genocide conflict in her classes, and she joined clubs and groups in the college.
While so many things are amazing about Ms. Sadat’s journey, what struck me most was her and her family’s perseverance in her early education years. Her father picked up and moved the entire family to a different country so that his daughters would be given an opportunity to learn. She took enormous risks just to have a chance at a quality education. On a personal level, it makes me incredibly thankful that I grew up in a country and environment where my education was not constantly at risk.
I learned recently that Sadat is the recipient of the Soros Fellowships for New Americans – chosen for her potential to make significant contributions to the US society, culture, or academics. She also co-founded Firoz Academy, an ed-tech start-up focused on educational and employment opportunities for war-torn countries.
Across our 40+ schools, I believe we have the next Wazhma Sadat (well perhaps not exactly – Zambia has already had a student at Yale). Our students already face incredible adversity to get to school sometimes – heavy rains, hot suns, and cool temperatures in the winter could keep even the most dedicated students from attending. And while we do have students that struggle to attend, we also have some of the most motivated and dedicated students I have ever seen. They show up every day, eager to learn, an hour or more early, they do work on the front areas of the school until it begins, they are excited to learn and thirsty for knowledge. And I believe that thirst will lead them to do great things – so long as we continue to provide them with the opportunity.