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Mentoring women

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By The Asian University for Women in Chittagong helps promising young women realise their leadership potential. Hemchhaya De reports
  • Published 9.07.09

Sunita Basnet wants to become a micro-financier after graduating from the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The AUW is South Asia’s first international university for women providing education in the liberal arts. Its aim is to aid promising young women realise their potential and develop leadership qualities.

Basnet has already made a beginning. A couple of years ago, she — along with nine other women — set up an organisation called the Women’s Saving Club in her village in Nepal’s Terai region. The group’s objective is to grant loans to women. “I want to help women in my village get an education,” says Basnet, who plans to study business management. Coming from a poor family, she had to struggle for basic education. Luckily, she came to know about the newly launched AUW while working in a non-governmental organisation (NGO) last year. She took the admission test, and with her parents’ support, made her way to Chittagong.

South Asian dream

Basnet studied on a full scholarship at the AUW’s Access Academy (AA) which offers a 12-month pre-university course. Boasting of international faculty, the AA addresses various needs of students in terms of academic preparation, cultural adjustment, language, and mathematical and technological skills. At the end of the course, those clearing the selection test were inducted into the first undergraduate class of the AUW in August.

The residential academy had 129 students, most from underprivileged communities in countries such as Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Their dream is to make a difference to their society.

Duth Kimsru grew up in a remote village in Cambodia. “Access to education was difficult. After graduation, I want to return to my village and introduce the people to information technology," says Kimsru. But students like her sometimes need support in more ways than one. “English poses a challenge to me,” she says. And this is where the AA helped her out.

“Women need a separate space to voice their concerns,” feels Kamal Ahmad, vice-chairperson of the Asian University for Women Foundation, a US-based NGO that handles AUW’s planning and fund-raising efforts. According to a study in the US, high achieving women were more likely to have graduated from women’s colleges than from co-educational ones.

“The university proposes to introduce a range of perspectives on the role and position of women in society, and provide a space where each could be critically and reflectively examined in an environment that is supportive of women and their particular concerns,” adds Ahmad.

Robust support

The AUW has a stellar support team. Its institutional donors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Goldman Sachs Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. And the council of advisors features such names as Muhammad Yunus and Ratan Tata. In fact, a high-level Tata delegation — led by Tata International chairman Shyamal Gupta — was in Chittagong recently to explore the possibility of a collaboration. Apart from help with infrastructure development, the delegation assured the AUW authorities of student internship with Tata companies. “The AUW is a unique venture. Ratan Tata wouldn’t have been part of it if he didn’t believe in the vision,” says Gupta.

What constitutes the academic programmes? The four-year undergraduate programmes will cover the liberal arts, with an accent on mathematics, natural and physical sciences, arts and humanities. The multi-disciplinary courses will enable students to develop analytical skills. “We discourage rote learning. Our students would be enabled to adopt what could be termed international professional woman’s education standards. We want them to be effective communicators, with a style that is individual yet global,” says Judith Engle, a Princeton University scholar involved in developing the curriculum.

To begin with, the AUW plans to offer undergraduate courses in information and communication technology (ICT), business management, environment technology and public policy. The curricula have been designed to instil a spirit of entrepreneurship and social responsibility.

The university is also working on partnerships with foreign universities for its graduate programmes. An agreement has been reached with Aalborg University, Denmark, for the ICT course. “We are also getting support from the UK’s Imperial College for our environmental engineering programme,” informs Ahmad.

The AUW faculty has internationally known scholars in various fields. For instance, Hoon Eng Khoo — former vice-dean of the National University of Singapore Medical School — is provost and acting vice-chancellor of the AUW. “Historian Romila Thapar is helping us develop the humanities curriculum,” says Ahmad.

By a charter, 25 per cent of the university’s seats are reserved for Bangladeshi students. The university selects students mainly through its co-ordinators based in various countries. For instance, in India, the AUW has centres in Chennai and Gujarat. Applicants need to write an essay and take an interview. This is to see whether a candidate has a spark for leadership. Meritorious students from economically challenged backgrounds can avail themselves of the university’s scholarship schemes.

Picture postcard

Both the AUW and AA are housed in a temporary arrangement in Chittagong proper. The actual campus site is located six kilometres from the commercial centre of the city. The new campus will be built on 104 acres of lush, undulating hilly terrain, offering a breathtaking view of the Bay of Bengal. It will be a self-sufficient academic and residential unit accommodating about 3,000 students.

However, there are several challenges to building this global village of sorts. For instance, the valleys are flood-prone and thus susceptible to landslides in case of heavy monsoon. A team of experts — led by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie — is working on a sustainable design. The university would also receive support from the Tata group in this regard.

Indeed, if the AA is any indicator, the AUW is poised to become a cultural melting pot in our neighbouring country. “I have come all the way from my hometown in Tamil Nadu because of this multicultural environment. There’s so much to learn from other cultures. I wouldn’t have had access to such a learning system in my country,” concludes Laxmi, an Indian student at the AA.

Seems Chittagong is set to redefine women’s education in this part of the world.

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