Kakenya Ntaiya did not learn that female genital mutilation was illegal in her home country of Kenya until she came to the United States as an international student. She did not know that women were allowed to own property or that girls were entitled to an education until she read it in a book while completing a research project at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“Through that, I learned about my country and home more than I could ever have imagined,” said Ntaiya at the Thursday plenary address in San Diego.

Ntaiya, a 2013 CNN Hero, is the founder of the Kakenya Center of Excellence in her hometown of Enoosean, Kenya. The school offers young girls in her community the opportunity receive an education and escape the future that awaited her: female circumcision and early marriage. “I started losing my friends to marriage in the fourth grade,” said Ntaiya.

Although she was subjected to genital mutilation once she reached puberty, she convinced her father to delay her arranged marriage to let her finish her education, and eventually, Ntaiya was able to travel to the United States to attend college.

There she learned that education “is the greatest weapon you can give.” Ntaiya’s new knowledge empowered her to fight for change and advocate for the futures and lives of girls who are in similar situations.

Her experience as a young girl growing up in rural Kenya is difficult for many to imagine, and the hardships she faced are foreign to many who hear her story, but her decision to speak out and shed light on what happens to children in her situation makes it that much more difficult to continue to occur.

When people are made aware of something that is wrong, they are more inclined to take action. “If they were exposed to situations like that, they would have made the right decision,” said Ntaiya, speaking of politicians in the United States who vote against issues of equality such as immigration reform.

International educators are in a unique position to provide students and communities with a chance to interact with people from the other side of the world and look at their own cultures as an outsider. Exchanges allow people to build compassion, forge connections, and create a world that is more just for all individuals.

Ntaiya was given an amazing chance to improve her life through education, and she has paid it forward to help other young girls do the same. We should all try to envision what the world would be like if more people were given the same opportunity.