The New York Times

August 13, 2003

Cheer and Challenge, Far From Home


BRISTOL, R.I., Aug. 12 The five sophomores had plenty of advice for the new students today at a special orientation here at Roger Williams University: When you feel overwhelmed by the strange foods in the cafeteria, go for the French fries. And when you miss your family so much you can't bear it, read the Koran, have a good cry and remember why you came.

The sophomores, in their jeans and college sweatshirts, and the seven new students, in traditional Afghan dress, were as one on the last part: All 12 women, ranging in age from 18 to 32, want an education not only for themselves but also for the contributions they hope to make to rebuilding Afghanistan, their home.

Under the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a program sponsored by Roger Williams and eight other colleges, each woman has received a four-year scholarship, and four years of a very different way of life.

One of the five women who entered the program last year, Mahbuba Babrakzai, a Pashtun studying engineering here, told the new students that unlike Afghan teachers, who will start at the beginning of a textbook and teach it through until the end, American professors like to skip around.

"It sounds a bit messy at first," she said, "but you'll get used to it."

Paula Nirschel, whose husband, Roy, is Roger Williams's president, started the program last year after watching news reports about the burkha-shrouded women of Afghanistan, who had been forbidden to take classes during the Taliban rule.

"The visuals started haunting me," Mrs. Nirschel said. "I just felt that it was so terrible that they were walking around behind these screens and that they were denied education, art, everything to me that was so important in life."

Her husband suggested that they send a check, but she was set on the more ambitious idea of full scholarships.

"I spent months trying to talk all of these universities into offering a scholarship to a program that essentially didn't exist and that I was sort of thinking up as I went," she said. "People were very leery."

She ultimately persuaded not only Roger Williams but also Lock Haven University and Juniata College in Pennsylvania, Montclair State University in New Jersey, Lyndon State College in Vermont, Henry Cogswell College in Washington State, Kennesaw State University in Georgia, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Montana. Each of those institutions is sponsoring the $100,000-a-student scholarships, while Mrs. Nirschel continues raising money to meet expenses like airfare and health care.

After orientation here, three of the Afghan women, freshmen here last academic year, will remain at Roger Williams, while the others scatter to other sponsoring colleges.

The women's agreement to spend summers working in Afghanistan is a requirement of the program. So is an ability to speak English, which some learned from study in Pakistan during the Taliban rule, others from parents or secretly retained tutors.

The veteran students say that among their favorite parts of college life are going to the mall with money from their work-study jobs, getting credit for a field trip to New York City and taking long walks around campus with new friends whenever they want, even at midnight.

That kind of freedom, and safety, is still hard to come by in Kandahar, where Forozan Farhat's family lives. Ms. Farhat, 22, who entered the program last year and studied at Notre Dame, returned home this summer to begin teaching a computer class for 45 women. But when an explosion destroyed a nearby mosque, the students stopped showing up, and her father decided that the streets were not safe. "I had to stay in the house just about all the time," she said.

For some, simply being able to accept the scholarship becomes a challenge. Last year one woman canceled only days before she was to leave Afghanistan, because her relatives had decided that they did not want her to go; two other women canceled this year.

Samira Pannah, a 22-year-old freshman from Kabul, says many of her relatives were so opposed to her leaving that they sent letters to the United States Embassy forbidding it. She ultimately persuaded her parents to let her go, but her other relatives are sure she will be changed for the worse by life in the United States.

On the other hand, there is the experience of another new student, Anahita Ahmad, 27, who finished high school in Kabul in 1994, was unable to continue her education under the Taliban and will now study at Kennesaw State. Although her father has a heart ailment and her job with an international agency was the only source of family income, he insisted that she accept the scholarship.

"I was paying all the payments for his sickness," Ms. Ahmad said. "But my father told me: `No, it is not important. You have to go and you have to continue your education, because that is the important thing for your future, for our future and for your country.' "

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