When students inspire: learning from female students in Bangladesh

Emily Kastl arrived in Bangladesh this past August. Working at the Asian University for Women, she has met many inspirational female students. Read on to learn how Emily's students are inspiring her and exposing her to new life perspectives...

Since I have only blogged about weekend adventures and being followed by the Bangladeshi paparazzi, I realize it may appear that I moved here to enjoy 10 months of luxurious living (I mean, did you read my post about the beach? We’re practically in paradise…). In actuality, I did have a purpose for putting off gainful employment, packing up, and moving 8,000 miles away to an alcohol-less country. I still do have a purpose, but I’m trying to figure out how to put it into words. This post is an attempt at gathering all the discombobulated thoughts and emotions racing recklessly around my head. Emily Kastl talking about emotions? WTF? I know, weird, but I’ll try to pepper in sarcasm so you know it really is me writing this. 
I’ve always known I’ve wanted to do the soul-searching year abroad thing after college. I think I knew this even before I knew I wanted to go to college. But why a developing country like Bangladesh? (I mean, other than the bustling nightlife scene here. That’s a given) Why not Europe? I could explore a new country every day, drink wine up to my gills, and look grungy but in the “travel haggered” kind of way – every recent grad’s dream. Now that I’ve been here over a month I think the easiest answer to “Why Bangladesh?” is because AUW is in Bangladesh. More specifically, the students who are at the center of this university are in Bangladesh.
Of course, I couldn’t have known this before arriving here, but just reading about AUW and its mission was enough for me. Besides, Europe wouldn’t be ideal because, as my parents keep reminding me, my liver needs to detox from undergrad. Anyway, a little more about AUW: it was founded in 2008 with a class of 130 students. These 130 students became the first graduating class of AUW in 2013. Now, 5 years later, the student body – which comes from 15 countries – stands at 535, 99% of which is on full donation-based scholarship.
“The Asian University for Women seeks to graduate women who will be skilled and innovative professionals, service-oriented leaders in the businesses and communities in which they will work and live, and promoters of intercultural understanding and sustainable human and economic development in Asia and throughout the world.”
Mission statements are boring. Sure, they’re nice in theory, but they definitely seem to be a formality in the states; everybody has one but do they actually translate into actions? That’s what’s different about AUW’s mission statement – students live it. When they say they want to be a leader in their country, they don’t mean they want to become a sleazy politician to exploit people for money and status (like “leaders” in a certain country I know…). They mean they want to learn the skills necessary to go back home and make a positive change.
Part of my responsibility as a volunteer here involves  tutoring students one-on-one in the Writing Center. This means I have had the traumatic experience of re-learning English grammar (which is a total joke, by the way), but it also means I get to know students on a personal basis; they tell me about their families and friends, their least favorite things about Chittagong, and I do the same. Here are just a few of the incredible stories I have heard:
- one student from Chittagong casually mentioned she helped found her own NGO. As a junior. In COLLEGE. Though they have been sidelined recently because of the political unrest here, she told me their most recent project was a trash clean up campaign in Chittagong, which I’m pretty sure is the unofficial Litter Capital of the World.
- in an interview, a first year student from China told me she is very homesick (many of the students here cannot afford to travel home and may go 5 years without seeing their families). When I asked why she explained her father was in an accident and can no longer work in the rice paddies, her mother is always sick, and her oldest brother is also away at university. “My brother is too young to understand these things,” she told me. She seemed relieved when she mentioned this. When I asked her what she wanted to do for a career she said she wanted to be a teacher. She explained that when she lived in China she knew nothing about the world other than her village: “In my childhood I only know here. I don’t want another child to only know here.” That’s why she wants to be a teacher.
- a first year student from Pakistan also told me she wants to be a teacher. When she was accepted to AUW her entire village knew about it. She told me how most people there believe it is dangerous for a woman to leave for fear of moral and cultural transformation. She explained that she plans to return home in 5 years and change the opinions of her village people: “I want to prove myself to my family and village. I will become a great leader.” Her career ambitions are to become a lecturer of English in Pakistan. “I will work for the betterment of the people of my country,” she told me in closing.
These are just a sample of the powerful stories walking the halls of AUW. A common theme I’ve noticed across narratives is the desire to return home. These students are not at AUW to become educated and move to the West for the promise of a better life – some of them might be, but many want to return home. They want to go back to where they started and alter the circumstances – which might be anything from political corruption and poverty to gender discrimination and war – with which they grew up. They want to extend their opportunity beyond just 5 years in Chittagong; their time at AUW doesn’t end with them.
And here’s where my emotions get messed up.
1.) Guilt. I feel guilty because education has been an omnipresent force my entire life. I never had to fight for knowledge. Having just completed the 4 best years of my life so far (which now seem pitifully easy in comparison), I look back and wonder how divergent my lifecourse would be if higher education wasn’t an option because of my gender.
2.) Anger. I’m angry at myself for taking advantage of education. I’m angry at my classmates who said they were at Michigan because their parents were paying tuition, so why not party for 4 years? I’m angry that some of these well-spoken, compassionate girls I have been meeting at AUW have had to fight their way through life. Lots of anger.
3.) Helplessness. Being at AUW, it’s hard to not want to solve the education problems of the world; “Why am I sitting here outlining a paper when I should be lobbying governments for women’s rights?!” Here’s this giant global issue in front of us, yet we have to chip away one tutoring session, one office hours session at a time.
I think about these things, then I sit down with a student who says she just wants to talk, to learn about my family, to see my pictures from home –  then I feel emotion number 4.) optimism. We’re all in for much better things.

- Emily Kastl, WorldTeach Bangladesh '13-'14

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