Growing up in Afghanistan, Fatemeh Ahmadi moved every couple years, her family bouncing from one house to another. The University of Mary Washington junior, who never imagined she’d attend a university in the U.S., spent last spring break giving another family a place to call home as part of a Habitat for Humanity trip.
“I come from a third world country where we’ve lived in rental houses,” Ahmadi said. “I understand how hard it is not to have a roof of your own on top of your head.”
Now, she is the first person in her family to attend college. Ahmadi and Afghan native Maryam Yousufzai, also a junior, are receiving full scholarships through UMW as part of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, known as IEAW.
The largest program of its kind, the IEAW has a mission to “create Afghanistan’s future women leaders through education and career guidance.” Since the launch of the program more than a decade ago, the initiative has given an education and a voice to more than 85 Afghan women through education at American universities, leadership training and career guidance.
Ahmadi and Yousufzai will ultimately become the fourth and fifth women from Afghanistan to graduate from UMW through the program. After graduation, the two women will return to Afghanistan to with goals to create change and a better world in their home country. Both want to help women in their home country live better, more independent lives.
Education has always played a strong role in Ahmadi’s life. Living in Herat during the Taliban regime, Ahmadi had to be homeschooled in order to keep up her studies, and was thrilled when she got to go back to school.
“I was very excited to go to real school after the collapse,” said Ahmadi. “I was eager to learn more.”
Since that return to school, Ahmadi has sought to do everything she can to further her education and create a better life for herself. When the opportunity to study in the U.S. first came up in high school, Ahmadi didn’t hesitate and took the first English entry exam into the program without telling her parents.
She had family members who were against her leaving Afghanistan, but her mother, who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, encouraged her to open the doors for her future.
“My mom pushes her children to do well,” said Ahmadi, who credits her mother with her success, “She wants her children to appreciate their education.”
Trying to experience every aspect of college for her mother and younger siblings back in Afghanistan, Ahmadi has joined over half a dozen of UMW’s clubs and organizations, including Unicef, the Outdoors Club and the Islamic Student Association.
“At first, everything was new to me, so I tried to go to everything,” said Ahmadi. She also has participated in many of UMW’s iconic multicultural events, including the Fast-a-Thon, Multicultural Fair and Arab Culture Night.
For Maryam Yousufzai, studying at UMW as a member of IEAW has given her the opportunity to take her education farther than she could have in her home city of Kabul, Afghanistan.
“I wanted to do something big and I wanted to do something different,” said Yousufzai.
When Yousufzai received her acceptance email from the initiative, she was so shocked she didn’t think it was real.
“I couldn’t believe it at the beginning,” said Yousufzai, who dreamed of being accepted by IEAW for years. “I kept re-reading the email back again and again.”
Since her arrival at UMW, Yousufzai, a business and economics double major, has striven to make the most of her educational opportunities.
“I first noticed how peaceful and beautiful this school was,” said Yousufzai, who feels that UMW’s small classes and tranquil campus setting have helped her succeed. In her three years at UMW, she has been named to the Dean’s List, President’s List and is a member of several honor societies.
”I was blessed to be able to come to the United States and study, because not everyone has the opportunity in Afghanistan,” said Yousufzai.
In addition to her school work, Yousufzai works in the Accounts Payable office at UMW, which she feels is giving her experience to help her with her future goal of helping Afghan women become more financially stable.
Cheryl Mason, assistant director of international students and scholars at the Center for International Education, has seen firsthand the efforts of the students and has high hopes for their return to Afghanistan.
”It’s even more important now for well-educated women to be ready to take a leadership role,” said Mason, who has worked with the students since their arrival at UMW three years ago. “Afghanistan needs women like Fatemeh and Maryam.”
With strong ambitions, both students have already set out to work towards their ultimate dreams for a better life for women in Afghanistan.
“Women aren’t aware of everything that they can do,” said Ahmadi.
She hopes to make a career of helping Afghanistan’s women and children. During her summer breaks in Afghanistan, she volunteers her time giving English lessons to children in orphanages.
“Their education is the root for a better life,” Ahmadi said. “English will open many doors for them, because it opened many doors for me.”
With graduation looming in less than a year, Ahmadi is excited for the future in Afghanistan she never imagined she would have.
“I feel opportunities like this are going to have a big impact on Afghanistan’s future,” said Ahmadi. “IEAW is one of the best things that have happened to me.”
Mason shares in their excitement and hopes to stay in touch with the students after they return to Afghanistan.
“I have a lot of confidence in them and am excited to see what they will do, because nobody will stop these two,” said Mason. ”They were strong women when they arrived. Now they’re invincible.”