BC, Afghan Girls Launch Pen Pal Program
Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 23:10
A new pen pal exchange program between female students at Boston College and Balkh University in northern Afghanistan is the first step toward a potential sister-school partnership between the two schools.
An official at the U.S. Consulate in Mazir-e-Sharif, Afghanistan recently reached out to political science professor Kathleen Bailey and Brooke Loughrin, A&S ’14, about the potential for a partnership.
Earlier this semester Bailey and Loughrin were awarded a $17,500, multi-year grant from BC’s Institute for the Liberal Arts for the interdisciplinary project “Empowering the Women of Afghanistan through Education and Islamic Teachings.” The project includes a series of seminars aimed at educating the BC community about women’s rights issues in Afghanistan.
The two contacted Catherine Russell, BC ’86, who is the U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues, to speak in the spring.
Russell agreed, and her office then informed the American consulate in Mazir-e-Sharif about the project. At the time, officials there were searching for an American university to participate in a partnership with the local Balkh University. The consular immediately contacted Bailey and Loughrin asking if BC would be interested. Bailey and Loughrin enthusiastically agreed to participate.
“[The consulate] has talked to the community and local administration at the school about the partnership, but there has been a lot of touch-and-go support,” Bailey said.
In order to ease into the partnership, which has yet to be finalized, the consulate thought a pen-pal exchange between female students at Balkh and BC would be a good first step.
Unlike most other Afghan schools, Balkh is known for educating women—about 40 percent of the school’s more than 13,000 students are female.
“It is uncommon in Afghanistan for women to be educated past grade six, so it’s really great that women are receiving an education at Balkh,” Loughrin said.
The State Dept. has a strong presence at Balkh, and in the city of Mazir-e-Sharif. In addition to developing athletic fields and installing Internet at the university, the State Dept. recently built a dorm for girls.
“The State Dept. really wants to continue to have civilian relationships with Afghanistan,” said Loughrin, who worked with the State Dept. as the first-ever U.S. Youth Observer at the United Nations.
The BC-Balkh sister-school partnership is a way for the U.S. to continue to have an impact on the Afghan community after the planned 2014 withdrawal of all NATO and U.S. forces from the country.
The U.S. consulate has reached out to members of the Balkh community about the partnership, and decided to ease into the program with the pen pal exchange.
The consulate is currently creating a list of female students at Balkh who will participate in the program, which will be over email.
As of now, the only restriction set by officials at Balkh is that only women can participate in the program. Bailey is unsure if Balkh officials and parents will screen the emails.
“Afghanistan has a much more conservative culture than us, so the girls’ parents would be more comfortable if they knew their daughters are talking with other girls,” Loughrin said.
Bailey said the female students at the university are very excited to begin. The consulate has identified between 20 and 25 students as proficient enough in English to participate, but more will join the program as they become proficient.
“There is a keen interest from the Afghan women to practice their English. Through the pen pal program they will be able to improve this skill, which will help them in many ways,” Loughrin said.
Bailey and Loughrin said that the Afghan women would lead the conversations, but that students here would be very engaged in the exchange.
“They will talk about topics of mutual interest, but the Afghan students will dictate where the conversation goes,” Bailey said.