Pathways for Promise: Empowering Young Women and Rediscovering my Purpose in Bangladesh
By WorldTeach Bangladesh volunteer Mark Flanigan, 2016-2017
Before coming to Bangladesh as a WorldTeach volunteer, I had never spent much time in South Asia. While I had experienced brief trips to Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka, they were more as a short-term traveller, ensconced in the comfortable scheduling of an observer passing through other peoples’ realities.
I was actually much more familiar with the history and culture of East Asia, having lived twice in Japan. I had spent a number of years there in each case, and greatly enjoyed living in Nagasaki and then later in Tokyo. While I was quite comfortable in my role as a cultural exchange participant each time in Japan, I was pretty well insulated to a great degree from any kind of harsh realities.
Less than one month before I was due to arrive at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh, I heard the news of the terrible attack in Dhaka, the capital city. All I knew was that international residents of the city had been targeted specifically in a vicious strike. The attackers, while a definite minority in terms of the general population, were sending a very clear and deadly message.
Although the attack did not take place in Chittagong, it was great cause for concern among both WorldTeach and AUW staff, as well as present and future volunteers. At that time, it was not clear whether we would still be able to serve in Bangladesh, or how the program might proceed. Many safety protocols would need to be analyzed and revised before a final decision could be made. In the end we were still given the option to come, which I was definitely happy to hear.
While I was determined to come to AUW, I still felt some degree of uneasiness over the possible security situation on the ground. Never having been there, I did not really know what to expect. I was nonetheless inspired by the words of Ms. Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs Japan and the AUW Support Foundation, who spoke of one of the toughest career decisions she had made in life. She said that ‘Maybe being afraid of something is a good thing because you’re never gonna grow if you are not challenged and stressed.’ I took that message to heart, and it led me here to the present time.
Now, the time has flown by and I am happily settling into my new life here. Before the recent Eid break this past week, I completed my first official month of teaching classes here at AUW in Bangladesh. I must say that it’s really rewarding to be working each and every school day with such dedicated young women! During the week-long break, I enjoyed a wonderful few days of very warm welcomes to shared meals from fellow teachers, students, and their family members. The true strength of the AUW community is the bond of fellowship among its various members.
My class is part of the Pathways for Promise Program at AUW, which is the recently developed entry point for women who have not had as much formal preparation to succeed in higher education. Many of them have come from the garment factories of Bangladesh, while others have experienced life as refugees, displaced persons, or persecuted minorities. They will take classes for approximately one year in Reading and Writing as well as Listening and Speaking.
If they complete the Pathways Program and meet all the exam requirements, they will advance to the one-year Access Academy and then an additional three years of undergraduate study. In all, the successful ones will graduate in five years with
their bachelor’s degree in hand. Against all odds, this is their big chance to earn their college degree. Without the encouragement and funding support to match their own amazing dedication, it would most likely be impossible.
It will not be easy for them. Many are far away from home and spend almost all of their time on the small but secure campus. They live in dormitories with 2-5 students per room, eat in the dining hall, and take all their classes together, so there is very little time for privacy or quiet reflection. Nonetheless, they are very eager to learn and make the most of this unique opportunity they have been granted.
My own specific class section is Reading and Writing, with 16 really enthusiastic and hard-working students. They do their very best, and are quite funny as well as being very highly-motivated. It’s really my pleasure to be volunteering here this year and having the chance to meet and teach such bright and determined young minds! While it is not always easy to live here, they make it so much worth the while.
Whenever I start to complain about urban Chittagong being hot, crowded, or dusty, I think about my students and how far they have traveled, physically and metaphorically, to get where they are today. When I look around the university and see all of these bright and motivated young women from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, Viet Nam, Bhutan, Syria, Palestine, and other countries, I cannot help but smile. Anything I could hope to teach them in one year pales by comparison to the life lessons they are imparting upon me. I know I made the right decision, and it’s truly an honor to be serving here at AUW.