A Night with Greg Mortenson: How U.S. Higher Education Can Help Women in Afghanistan and Pakistan

November 09, 2010

By Katie O'Connell

Last night at the National Geographic Society Headquarters in Washington, DC, I had the privilege of listening to Greg Mortenson speak passionately about his life’s work of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You may know him as the author of the bestsellers Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at A Time and Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is also co-founder of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute and founder of Pennies for Peace.

Mortenson grew up in Tanzania with his family, traveled internationally as a U.S. soldier, and has explored famous mountain peaks around the world. It was his failed climb of Pakistan’s K2 peak in 1993 that lead him to the children without a school in the remote village of Korphe, and set him on his life’s mission to educate children, especially girls, in isolated regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (For more information on the value of educating women and girls, Mortenson recommends reading the Council on Foreign Relations report, What Works in Girls' Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World). Mortenson says,

“There is an African proverb I learned as a child in Tanzania, ‘If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. But if you educate a girl, you educate a community.’”

Mortenson is now living this proverb. Spending almost half of each year in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he diligently works to foster the mutual respect and personal relationships needed to build schools, and sees that the local communities are invested in the projects from beginning to end – from the first breaking of dirt through to the first class of graduates. When he is not in the region, you can find him speaking around the world as a strong, passionate, and also humble advocate for education and peace, or making time for his family in Montana.

While it would be an understatement to say that Mortenson’s work faced challenges after September 11, 2001, the need for education only grows. Mortenson explained to the audience last night how Afghan elders told U.S. military commanders that they need “more brain power, not fire power.” While many American government officials believe that development and education is key to stability, Mortenson says that this belief, along with the advice from Afghan elders, need to be better represented in our policies in order to achieve peace in Afghanistan.

So how can U.S. higher education institutions help women in Afghanistan and Pakistan? This is the question I asked Mortenson last night. He recommended that the U.S. higher education community help build institutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan that match the needs of the people. For example, Mortenson noted the recent find of $1-2 trillion in mineral resources in the region, which includes the raw material needed for manufacturing cell phones. Mortenson said that by helping Afghanistan and Pakistan create schools of technology and mining, the two countries would be equipped with empowered graduates capable of developing this lucrative industry on their own, thus avoiding the exploitation that can come from foreign companies.

Mortenson also noted that very few women from Afghanistan and Pakistan are studying at higher education institutions in the United States. The more popular fields of study include teaching, healthcare, and law, especially law related to land management.

Can U.S. institutions do a better job of reaching out to and supporting these women who seek a professional degree? How else can the higher education community help women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other developing countries? How do Americans benefit from these partnerships? I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below, and I look forward to learning more about the important work that is already being done, and what we can do together in the future.


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