Since 2009, the Asian University for Women (AUW) has been shaping Asia’s female leaders through high quality post-secondary education.
Based in Chittagong, Bangladesh, the university offers full scholarships to the vast majority of its students. Candidates are carefully selected on the basis of merit and, through hard work and dedication, are empowered to become agents of change in their communities and the world at large.
Every year in March, AUW hosts its scholarship fundraiser to help raise money to support the education of less privileged Asian women. This year’s fundraiser was held at Sogetsu Kaikan in Tokyo.
For the occasion, several guest speakers, including internationally acclaimed expert on choice Sheena S. Iyengar, S.T. Lee Professor of Business, Columbia Business School, AUW Support Foundation Board member and author of the award-winning book The Art of Choosing, were invited to talk on the theme The Transformative Power of Education: My Journey. A panel discussion led by Kathy Matsui, Vice-chair of Goldman Sachs, concluded the evening.
THE POWER OF EDUCATION
Iyengar was the first to take the stage. “It is a real privilege to be back here in Japan – one of my favourite countries,” she said. Iyengar, who in 1995 studied at Kyoto University for a short period of time, admitted she was “a big fan of Japanese history, culture and food.”
After delving into the differences between male and female brain wiring and the effects these have on behaviour and skill sets, Iyengar told her compelling story about how she came to pursue higher education.
“In 1940, shortly after partition,” she recounted, “my aunt, whose father had just recently passed away, was married off to a man considered to be a ‘very bad apple’ and who wanted to put her into prostitution. As the wedding party was leaving, my grandmother ran after her daughter and decided to pull my aunt out of this marriage in a very bold and controversial move; so my aunt got divorced.”
Her aunt went on to get an education so that she could land a job and fend for herself. “She had to sit in the back of the room because she was stigmatized – she was divorced,” Iyengar told the audience, adding that she was instrumental in influencing both her mother’s and uncle’s decision to pursue a college degree.
Speaking of her mother, Iyengar said she later got married “the proper traditional way” and moved to the U.S. where she decided to stay home and be a good housewife. “That was her ideal – back then, women stayed home.”
But Iyengar’s father suddenly passed away when she was thirteen, and her mom, then a widow in debt, had to go back to work. “It wasn’t’ about gender, it was about survival, what was practical,” she said. “She probably couldn’t have gone back had she not had a masters’ degree in mathematics.”
Growing up, Iyengar said she internalized an ethos of self-reliance from her mother’s teachings, which in turn was only made possible through education.
“My mother was a very traditional and religious woman. Yet, she always advocated: ‘I don’t care about what you want to do about getting married and all that. Men can leave you; they can die on you. You have to stand up on your own two feet.’”
And stand up on her own two feet she did.
Despite a rare degenerative eye disease that rendered her completely blind, Iyengar went on to do a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Stanford University. She is also currently the Faculty Director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School, and Director for the Global Leadership Matrix Program.
Following Iyengar’s talk, AUW alumnae Sharmin Akter, from Bangladesh, and Tran Thi Huong Giang, from Vietnam, shared their own inspirational stories about how education changed their lives.
Tran was the first to speak. “Life is not a destination, but a journey,” she said.
Passionate about music and creative writing, she confided that her parents believed writing was “nothing but a self-indulging waste of time and money.” For Tran, who lives in communist Vietnam where freedom of speech, expression, and press are all out of reach, writing is an opportunity to help push back social and cultural boundaries. So she enrolled in AUW’s Liberal Arts Program to further her skills and increase her chances of finding a job that would allow her to draw on her creative talents.
Her degree – and talent – did pay off.
One of her pieces was selected for the AUW symposium, while another one was awarded “Best Student Anthropology of the Year.” Several others were published in the Daily Star, the largest daily English-language tabloid in Bangladesh. She even wrote a novel for her senior thesis.
After graduating, she held various jobs, notably as Event Executive at Forbes Vietnam where she worked on the Forbes Vietnam Under-30 Summit project. She is currently employed as a research assistant at Intage Vietnam, a member of Intage Group Japan and one of the biggest market research firms in the country.
“Growing up in the rural village of Noakhali, a village of approximately five thousand people, I always felt I had to behave in a way that was socially accepted and expected,” said Sharmin Akter, a native of Bangladesh. “Still, today, I am considered a different person in my community.”
She said that growing up, she was perceived as a “confused child” because she asked questions – a lot of questions. But her parents, who wished they could have gone to university but couldn’t afford it, saw great potential in their daughter, and a love for learning that ought not to be left unnurtured.
So one day Sharmin’s father brought home AUW’s advertisement pamphlet. “The front page,” she recounted, “showed a picture of AUW students with the caption: ‘Empowered future leaders.’ I didn’t understand what it meant back then; all I knew was that I wanted to be one of them.”
Sharmin, whose senior thesis sheds light on the perpetrators’ common patterns of domestic violence, the contributing factors, and the impact on the survivors, was subsequently recruited by the Ford Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
She currently works as a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence assistant with Technical Assistance Inc., a UNHCR partnership providing protection and life-sustaining assistance to over 32,000 registered Rohiynga refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. “Without these opportunities, I would never have discovered my commitment and passion for women’s issues,” she said.
In addition to finding her life purpose, Sharmin discovered her own self in the process. “Before,” she said, “I was someone’s daughter – that’s not bad; someone’s sister, someone’s wife. But now, I can say I’m Sharmin – nice to meet you. That is very important.”
The ensuing panel discussion revolved around the role education plays in shaping leaders, progress that has been made in the past three years with regard to gender equality in Japan, and new policies the government is planning in the near future, such as a procurement program based on points for companies that meet their gender targets.
Among the panelists present were Masako Mori, former Japanese Minister of State for Gender Equality and Member of the House of Councillors, and Yukiko Araki, engineer and Corporate Officer CSR and Environmental Strategy & Healthcare Division of Hitachi, Ltd.
Mori, a working mother, shared her personal story:
“I come from an underprivileged family,” she recounted. “My parents were swindled when I was seven. I had two younger sisters, so I had to work to earn money while pursuing an education. I had to survive on rationed food for my school lunch and skip dinner. My parents could not believe I would someday become a government minister.”
For her part, Yukiko Araki talked about how, despite the company’s male-dominated environment, Hitachi’s founder chose to support AUW. “We started our own school a hundred years ago. Our social contribution is to develop students to be a part of society. If we’re not leveraging half of the population, then it’s a waste.”
While Hitachi is a typical traditional company, Araki said they have interns from other parts of the world. “We learn so much from AUW students,” she added.
In closing, Iyengar, who was also on the panel, spoke about how women can be empowered through decision-making. “Power of choice,” she said, “comes from our ability to create and that comes from education.”
PATHWAYS FOR PROMISE
Launched in January 2015, AUW’s new program, “Pathways for Promise,” is a new initiative aiming “to recruit talented women amongst garment factory workers.” Candidates are selected for their “determination, empathy, courage and desire to pursue justice and passion to contribute to their communities and give voice to the poor and oppressed.”
Successful candidates receive a two-year preparatory course in English, mathematics, computer science and critical thinking, after which they can enroll in any of the regular programs offered by the university.
Since 2013, over 380 students have graduated from one of AUW’s programs. Around 20% of graduates are working in the private sector for companies like Accenture, Uniqlo, Unilever, and Chevron Bangladesh. In addition, 25% are working for prominent non-profit organizations, namely: Teach for Nepal, Room to Read, Medical Action Myanmar, World Bank, and UNHCR.
Many AUW alumnae are enrolled in world-class graduate schools such as Columbia University, Oxford University, Brandeis University, Ewha Woman’s University, Macquarie University, and Ashoka University.
If you wish to make a difference and help educating the next generations of women leaders in Asia, please make a donation at: https://donate.asian-university.org.