A dozen young women engage in a lively discussion with a professor in a classroom at a liberal arts college. They parse the finer points of classical philosophy, rational choice theory, and the legacies of European colonialism—all in impeccable English.
It’s a scene one might expect to find at a small liberal arts school in the United States, where students in small classes hone their critical thinking skills. But these young women are half a world away, in Chittagong, Bangladesh, at a unique institution dedicated to educating disadvantaged—but highly promising—female students: the Asian University for Women (AUW).
Founded in 2008, AUW seeks out motivated female students from across Asia, capable of assuming leadership roles in their communities and further afield. Although 46 percent of AUW students come from Bangladesh, the university has a regional focus, with a student body hailing from 16 countries. Admission decisions are made irrespective of students’ ability to pay, and the vast majority receive full scholarships.
Today, the school has roughly 600 students, mostly undergraduates, and offers degree programs in the social and natural sciences. Before they start their degree courses, most go through AUW’s remedial program, Access Academy. Because although they possess an immense hunger for learning, the prior schooling these women received was focused on rote memorization, leaving them without the requisite academic and English skills to excel in rigorous tertiary study.
For Nazifa Alizada, who graduated last May, the Access Academy program was at once challenging and invigorating, and allowed her to improve her skills—including her English proficiency—in a short period of time. “To be honest, I was really confident of my English when I started the program. I didn’t think I’d have to work at it so much. But when the other Access Academy students started to talk, I had to concentrate so much to understand them,” she says. “I didn’t expect that to happen. But after a month or so, things got better.”
An ethnic Hazara originally from Ghazni Province in Afghanistan, Alizada, now 23, spent her earliest years as a refugee in Tehran before returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. Her family settled in Kabul, where she attended a government school.
“Most of [the other students] were much older than me, because they were girls that couldn’t go to school under the Taliban and were resuming their studies. We’d sit the whole day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and we’d have teachers come in for 10 minutes, and that would be it for the day,” she recounts.
She soon transferred to Marefat High School, a private institution in Kabul that serves as a recruitment pipeline for AUW. After completing the Access Academy program, she pursued a politics, philosophy and economics bachelor’s degree, with minors in gender studies and Asian studies.
At first, she says, she spent most of her time with other Afghan students, but within a couple of months she found herself making friends from all over Asia. “That was a fascinating aspect of AUW, having so many cultures, languages, and religions together and letting them interact in both academic and nonacademic life.”
But the most important thing she gained from her time at AUW was improved critical thinking skills. “[It’s] a key pillar at AUW, and it really helped me in my academic life and afterwards. The ability to question everything, to not be afraid of questioning, and to not automatically believe things because an authority [figure] says so.”
Critical thinking is at the core of an AUW initiative that offers full scholarships to workers from Bangladesh’s garment sector, equipping them with a toolkit to advocate for themselves in their own voices. The initiative was spurred by the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013; more than 1,000 garment workers perished, more than half of them female.
Because many of AUW’s female students are their family’s primary breadwinners, participating factories pay full salaries to these workers for the duration of their studies. But students are under no obligation to return to the factory once their studies are complete, and graduates of this program have gone on to successful internships and employment.
After finishing her coursework in December 2015, Alizada moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, where she is now completing an internship at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, and hopes to continue working in the field of gender-related policy and advocacy. In the year since she left AUW, she has realized that it takes time to learn how to use classroom knowledge in a professional context.
“The changes and impact one makes in the world don’t have to be really big, or with results visible overnight. Every small step that we take has an impact, and those things are valuable.”