Liberal learning edition

Can a liberal-arts education change the social and economic path for women in Asia?

A Bold Experiment

When the guards slowly opened the gate to the Asian University of Women, I felt like I was entering another world. Outside were Chittagong’s dust- and exhaust-choked streets. Inside was buzzing, too – with women. They were everywhere in the narrow courtyard, debating in voluble knots, annexing a few steps for a math study group, ambling arm-in-arm. 

Over the years, I’ve carved out a sort of sub-beat, looking at how that most American of educational models, the liberal arts, gets exported around the world. It’s an interest that comes naturally to me, a liberal arts graduate.

Many of the colleges and programs I’ve visited are very much like my own, with students who are similar to me – middle class kids from good schools. I may have been in Shanghai or Singapore, but these places felt as immediately familiar to as my New England alma mater.

But AUW is different. The Bangladesh-based college’s mission is to cater to young women for whom a liberal-arts education – for whom college at all – is an unlikely opportunity. They come from across Asia, the daughters of poor families, factory workers, laborers from tea plantations, refugees who have fled unspeakable violence. 

The university’s founder, an American-educated lawyer named Kamal Ahmad, argues that an education grounded in critical thinking and inquiry is even more powerful for these students because it is informed by their profound life experiences. The liberal-arts tradition, he told me, “helps women take charge of their lives, with their mind their instrument of power.”

I was intrigued. And that’s how I found myself, after two days’ travel, pulling up to AUW’s gates. 

It’s hard not to come away from the decade-old institution affected by the sheer audacity of what these educators are trying to do, and by their success so far in pulling it off. The students recruited to AUW are natively intelligent but their formal schooling has been poor or even nonexistent. They must learn in a language, English, that is not their own. They require a year, and for some two, just to be college-ready.

But once they do, the transformation is amazing. Students in upper-level classes debate complex theories, read weighty books, carry out intricate research. A quarter of alumnae go on to top graduate programs around the world, to universities like Columbia and Duke and Oxford, most on full scholarship. Their desire to learn is palpable. In classes, students sat quite literally on the edge of their seats.

For me, the real question is, what next? Ahmad and AUW’s other backers – who include Bill and Melinda Gates, Cherie Blair, and the guy who quintupled Harvard’s endowment – see educating women across Asia as key to lifting the region out of poverty and to resolving the deep-seated religious, ethnic, and cultural conflicts that trouble it. “Educating women is not educating one girl,” the college’s vice-chancellor said to me, “it’s educating a whole family. It’s educating a community, a nation.”

Liberal learning can be powerful, and to some people that power can be dangerous. Officials in Beijing, for instance, have suggested that efforts in Hong Kong to teach critical thinking skills – which I wrote about here – have radicalized the city’s youth and helped foment this summer’s pro-democracy demonstrations.

Many of AUW’s graduates will return to countries where there is little history of women – educated, thoughful, opinionated women – in positions of leadership. Many of them will return to families where that’s also the case. The university’s lasting power will be measured by what happens when students pass back through its gates.

I hope you can find time to read my piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, told through the stories of four of the remarkable students I met. 

Some thank you’s are in order – I got to go to Bangladesh with the support of the International Reporting Project, a wonderful organization that for 20 years sent journalists around the world to cover stories that otherwise might never have been told. And I owe a heap of gratitude to Kris Renn at Michigan State, who literally wrote the book on women’s education worldwide, and to Patti McGill Peterson, who authored the one on liberal arts around the globe. They were indispensible guides, sounding boards, and cheerleaders.

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DHS Seeks Social-Media Handles

In recent days, in dozens of conversations with international-office staffers about the incidence of student-visa revocations, there was one thing I kept hearing: Puzzlement that border officers were taking students’ phones, computers, and other electronic devices to apparently scrutinize their communications and social-media profiles. Yes, the State Department requests social-media information during the visa application process, people told me, but that’s not something Homeland Security asks for. 

Well, now it does. The department published a notice in the Federal Register on Wednesday, saying that it, too, plans to collect social-media handles of travelers, including students, to the United States. Such information is needed, the notice says, to validate applicants' identity and to determine whether they pose a law enforcement or national security risk. 

The public has until November 4 to comment on the proposed change. If you, your institution, or your organization submit a comment, consider sharing it with me – I’m interested in your perspectives on how this new practice could affect international students and scholars.

Have news tips or story ideas? Send me an email at

Around the Globe

The University of Illinois took out an insurance policy against a drop in Chinese students. Has the trade war made such policies too expensive for other institutions?

The minister for universities and science in Britain’s conservative government has resigned over differences in the handling of Brexit. The wrinkle? He’s the prime minister’s brother.

President Trump suggested that if he prevails in a Supreme Court case over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, he’d be open to a congressional deal to shield young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children from deportation:

Universities in Brazil could run out of money for basic operating expenses because of government funding cuts.

More than 60 science, engineering, and international education organizations have signed a letter to U.S. science agencies warning that policies to address national security concerns could end up harming the scientific enterprise.

The president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has asked the country’s Constitutional Court to annul a recently-passed law passed that stripped the academy of its research institutes.

Some students in Ontario say they are struggling to pay tuition after the Canadian province’s conservative government cut a key aid program by 40 percent.

The New York Times takes a look at how writing papers for American students became a lucrative job overseas.

And finally…

A group of Chinese scholars is claiming that English is derived from Chinese. English, they argue, is just another Chinese dialect, like Mandarin and Cantonese. To bolster their assertion, they point to the similarities between certain Chinese and English words. Yellow, for instance, sounds much like the words for falling leaves, yè luò, while shop is similar to shāngpù, which has the same meaning.

Of course, kělè sounds awfully close to its English counterpart, and I don’t think anyone is making the counter-claim that genesis of Chinese is Coca Cola.

’Til next week – Karin

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