Pit Stop #54: Asian University for Women

I have to admit that Bangladesh was never on my list of must-visit places, but after just a few days there, it’s absolutely on my must-visit-again list. And trust me, it’s not because I made this trip for the weather since as it turns out, I visited in the middle of monsoon season. (I’ll never complain again about New England’s wet summer.) Nope, the reason for my new attachment can be summed up in four words: Asian University for Women (AUW). AUW is among a number of international institutions in the process of seeking NECHE accreditation and I’m trying to visit every one. Before the pandemic, AUW was declared eligible to proceed to Candidacy by the Commission and my intention was to check back in with the university and its new leadership team. 

A view of Chittagong from my hotel room.

But first, a bit about Bangladesh. Originally known as East Pakistan, the country was formed in the Partition of Bengal by the British in 1947, until a liberation war in 1971 led to Bangladeshi independence. Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world and among the most densely populated. Almost completely surrounded by India, (a small strip borders Myanmar) the country has a large port in the Bay of Bengal and boasts the second-largest (to India) economy in South Asia, growing 6% a year for the last two decades. In fact, its per capita income now exceeds India’s.  With the help of international development assistance, Bangladesh has reduced its poverty rate from more than 50% to about 30%, achieved Millennium Development Goals for maternal and child health, and made great progress in increasing its food security. 

And yet, higher education for women in Bangladesh is often an unobtainable dream. Hence, the Asian University for Women. AUW’s founder, Kamal Ahmad was born in Dhaka to a family of educators and his visionary work began at the early age of 14, when he first set up a school for adolescents serving as domestic workers on the side of an abandoned public road. He came to the United States to attend high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, college at Harvard, then law school at the University of Michigan.  After working at the World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation, UNICEF and the Asian Development Bank, Ahmad conceived and co-directed the World Bank/UNESCO Task Force on Higher Education & Society, which led to the founding of AUW. (Kamal and the AUW board just met with me in Boston, as he lives nearby.)  

My host for the Bangladesh visit was Vice-Chancellor Rubana Huq. Rubana served on the AUW Board before assuming her administrative position in 2022. Although she is not an academic by training, she earned her Ph.D. in English Literature in 2018. Her previous impressive career as a  businesswoman included serving as chairperson of Mohammadi Group and being elected the first female president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. BGMEA is the nationwide trade organization of garments manufacturers in Bangladesh and that sector plays a pivotal role in the country’s foreign trade. In seeking to create a new, female-centered management model for the garment industry, AUW now offers a Master’s degree in Apparel and Retail Management–surely inspired by Rubana’s commitment to moving other women into executive positions. Watching her in action over the three-day visit, I witnessed both her passion for AUW, her personal relationships with its students, and her clear understanding of the higher education enterprise. 

It’s difficult to imagine a more compelling endeavor than AUW’s mission: 

But it’s more than the mission that makes AUW special; it’s how that mission is manifested. AUW will enroll 1,450 students this fall, with aspirations to grow to 2,500 over the next few years. The women come from 19 countries and study across six majors and eight minors, while AUW’s faculty itself hails from more than 10 countries. To accommodate this planned growth, AWU is building a campus on 137 acres given to the university by the government. The first phase of the construction, a large academic center, will be completed by Spring, 2025, to be followed soon after by a series of residence halls for 800 students. Architectural firms on the project are the highly venerated firms of Moshe Safdie and Sasaki. But for now, AUW operates out of two leased facilities that include residence halls, about 15 minutes apart in the heart of Bangladesh’s second-largest city of Chittagong.

Among AUW students, in both its collegiate preparatory and baccalaureate programs, are nearly 200 women from the Rohingya refugee camp (the largest refugee camp in the world), and more than 450 women brought out of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The first Afghan women to arrive were airlifted out of the country just as the Taliban took over, through the intervention of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The exodus has continued over time; 11 new Afghanis arrived on campus just days before my visit.  To get to Bangladesh, the women must first go through Iran, as visas are available to that country, but when they leave Afghanistan, they must be accompanied by a man and can never mention that they are leaving for educational purposes. The dangerous process of identifying and transporting the women is accomplished quietly, in deep secrecy, through personal networks that AUW has developed, and quite frankly, it is the stuff of movies. 

Just a few of the AUW students I’ll never forget.

I spent some time talking to a half-dozen Afghan women enrolled in AUW’s Master’s in Education program and listening to their harrowing stories, I felt a combination of hope and despair. I can only imagine the emotions these women felt, recalling their personal journeys. On the hopeful side, each woman had grand career aspirations (most of which include earning a Ph. D. abroad) and I have little doubt that their education at AUW, amplified by their life experience, will enable them to accomplish those goals. But their personal aspirations are tempered with a deep sense of loss and sadness that they may never be able to return to their home country, or that their younger sisters are literally confined to their homes and prohibited from attending school after 6th grade. Each one spoke elegantly about their lives before the Taliban, when they attended college, held rewarding jobs, and were free to travel. Then overnight, everything changed and, with the Taliban’s ruling, they became prisoners in their homes, forbidden to work, study, or go outside without a man’s escort. But for the heroic efforts of this university, that’s the life these women would face, forever. It’s such an unimaginable tragedy I found it hard to take in, and I can’t begin to tell you what a privilege it was for me to meet these women and bear witness to their resilience and courage.  

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Happily, after attending AUW,  most students will be welcomed to continue their advanced studies, for little or no cost, at universities like Arizona State, Northeastern, MIT, Brandeis, Tufts, UMass-Lowell, Vanderbilt, and Johns Hopkins in the States; Cambridge, Oxford, Suffolk and Queens College in the UK; and Central European University in Hungary. 

Philanthropy has always been a major driver of AUW’s success. Boston’s Charles E. Merrill, Jr. provided its initial grant, followed by significant support from the Open Society Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In fact, AUW has received over $150 million dollars in gifts and in-kind donations since its founding, and today, almosst 60% of its $11 million annual budget comes from the Gates Foundation, Fast Retailing Foundation (UNIGLO), IKEA Foundation, Goldman Sachs, Mellon Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Annie Chen, Jack and Beth Meyer, and the US Department of State. 

Big things are happening for AUW

It’s inspiring to see the support Asian University for Women has engendered across the planet and to envision the impact it may have on the future of many women’s lives.

For a compelling read on the dire situation of women in Afghanistan, I’ve included this link.