University aids Afghan women, challenges others to join effort

BRISTOL, R.I. _ About 1,650 letters left the Roger Williams University mailroom on Friday as part of the school’s recent announcement that it is challenging all institutions of higher learning nationwide to follow its lead and offer academic scholarships to Afghan women.

The letters are addressed to the editors of the country’s major newspapers. This week, a similar letter will be electronically sent to officials at the nation’s 4,500 colleges and universities. The messages are co-signed by university President Roy J. Nirschel and his wife, Paula.

“Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, is pleased to be the first university in the country to offer a full scholarship (tuition, room and board) to an Afghan woman,” the letter states.

“In this small way, we can make a difference. And by this act we challenge all of American higher education, proportionate to a college’s or university’s size and endowment, to do likewise and invest in rebuilding Afghanistan as a model society in the twenty-first century.”

The establishment of the scholarship is the brainchild of Paula Nirschel, a personal friend of Providence, R.I., resident and Afghan expatriate Fatima Gailani. The two women became friends in November, when Gailani’s story gained national attention, Paula Nirschel said.

Her interaction with Gailani, who said she plans to return home to help restore peace and women’s equality to Afghanistan, led Nirschel to the conclusion that longstanding societies can only be built or improved by providing educational opportunities for their citizens.

Challenging other academic institutions to offer these educational opportunities augments what Roger Williams can and will do to help, Paula and Roy Nirschel said.

“Even educating a few Afghan women and giving them their wings and sending them back to help their country would be wonderful,” Paula Nirschel said.

“Even if only 10 percent of universities participated, that would still be 500 Afghan women or men attending college,” her husband added.

The scholarship will be awarded based on the recommendation of Gailani, Paula Nirschel said. The scholarships are worth about $125,000 over four years and will be awarded to women who plan to return to their home country, she said.

The scholarship will be awarded to one student each year, paving the way for the presence of four Afghan women on campus at a time, Roy Nirschel said. No end has been set for the program, he said.

The first scholarship will be awarded to a student enrolling in the fall, his wife said.

But young Afghan women will not be the only ones to benefit from the scholarship program, those involved said.

“It will be a reciprocal benefit to have women from Afghanistan educate us,” said Rebecca Leuchak, assistant professor of art and architectural history at Roger Williams. “This is a growing opportunity for our community, as well as for the women coming over.”

And establishing relationships in the country helps further catapult the university onto the global stage, one of the school’s main aims, Roy Nirschel said.

“We want to become an increasingly global university,” he said. “We are very proud of being in Bristol and proud of being in Rhode Island, but we are also part of a bigger, broader society.”

But to Gailani, who said she deeply loves her homeland despite its horrid treatment of women in the past, the most important beneficiaries are the most obvious ones: the Afghan women who will receive a higher education and the citizens whom they return to help.

“I hope to God that other universities will follow suit because this is not only a turning point in the lives of these young people, but it is a turning point in the future of our country,” she said. “Six months ago, I never thought an Afghan woman would be able to think of herself as just as important and equal as men of society.

“No matter how much you think you appreciate the need for this scholarship, (that appreciation) is not enough.”