Girls share stories and ideas on the value of education

By Sofia Gomez-Doyle, an A World at School Global Youth Ambassador from the USA and âher colleague Ritu Muralidharanâ from Indiaâ

On October 12, in celebration of International Day of the Girl (IDG), eight student mentors from the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Women’s Leadership Network facilitated a workshop on the importance of education and learning for a diverse group of 30 sixth-grade girls at a local Arabic medium middle school.

The girls’ eagerness to share their experiences and the unique nature of each their stories reiterated the importance and impact of discussion and dialogue.

As members of the Women’s Leadership Network , a student-led group that works towards creating opportunities and fostering dialogue for the advancement of women, we saw this as an opportunity to further our mission and engage with our community. We strived to create an open, inclusive and comfortable environment where both the girls and mentors could share stories and memories related to learning.

The session began by posing a question to the girls: what does International Day of the Girl represent? One student’s answer was particularly memorable: “It’s about us.” She couldn’t have been more right. IDG is about us. It’s about celebrating our individual stories, our dreams, our educational aspirations. But it’s also about listening. Listening to the stories of the girls and women around us, who are all filled with ideas, ambitions and achievements.

Following the introductory exercise and a series of icebreakers, the workshop transitioned into smaller, more focused group work. We presented images from our own high schools and reflected upon the people, classes or ideas that had motivated and inspired us. We were so glad to see how this encouraged the girls to open up and relate to the stories we shared with them!

The mentors then passed out large sheets of white paper and placed them in the centre of the table. Over the next 30 minutes, we asked the students to think and write about why education is important, where they can learn and who they can learn from. We also encouraged the students to think about examples from in-school and out-of-school contexts.

The girls wrote and drew their ideas in coloured markers, forming a kaleidoscopic array of images and phrases. Words, questions, diagrams and dreams formed a collage across the page. By the end of the session, we had six sheets of paper, brightly covered with the girls’ ideas and experiences.

As we wrapped up, we asked for one volunteer from each of the six groups to summarise their discussions and present to the class – but the students were so eager to share what they had learned and talked about, that entire groups asked to present together and share with the class instead! The energy in the room was palpable.

International Day of the Girl also served as an important reflective exercise for us through our role as mentors. It gave us the opportunity to think about the role of education in our own lives and how we can continue to drive the conversation about its significance, even in small ways.

Ritu Muralidharan, an NYUAD mentor, reflected: “In my family, the importance of education is constantly reiterated. At the end of every day, my father asks me: ‘What did you learn today?’ Every time my grandfather calls, the first thing he wants to know is how my classes at school are going. This constant conversation around education and learning has made me the self-motivated, driven woman that I am today. That’s what we hope to do with the students we work with.”

As mentors, we represented seven different countries, and yet our commitment to girls’ education brought us together.

Charlotte Gundry remembers one of the girls saying that she “wanted to have a great future.” Gundry added: “I was amazed by the enthusiasm of the girls! They told me how much they love learning new things. As mostly non-native English speakers, it was really exciting to see their confidence in speaking English grow during our time with them.”

Melinda Szekeres noted: “Girls’ education is important to ensure that they know that they can grow up to balance their familial responsibilities along with their jobs, and everything in between.”

Safa Kashaf echoed Melinda’s sentiments, saying: “I think educating girls is important because it teaches them how to stand up for themselves and have confidence in their abilities. Education is a process and IDG serves as one of many opportunities to encourage reflection and highlight the individuality of each girl’s background and dreams.”

Louise Okatch emphasised the idea that there is no single definition of education or empowerment. One of the students in her group reflected, “I wanted to say that this is a very big honor…this is a chance to talk about our feelings.” Louise said that the phrase “we talked about our feelings” stood out to her. “Many times in wanting to empower the girl child, we forget that their innate vision, that is unique to them, is what we should be nurturing and not merely prescribing a homogeneous idea of what an empowered girl looks like.”

We hope to continue to develop our girls’ education initiative and foster conversations surrounding education — as listeners, as leaders, as dedicated members of the community. At the conclusion of the IDG workshop, we asked the girls for their feedback and invited them to share what they would like to see in future sessions. Many of them responded that they wanted more time to share their stories and discuss their ideas in a smaller group context.

Using the students’ feedback, we are revising the curriculum to include topics such as leadership and teamwork. We also conducted a second workshop on 23 November for the school’s Student Council on the theme of “The Many Forms of Leadership,” and engaged additional students in the Women’s Leadership Network to serve as mentors. Additionally, we hope to improve future workshops to target a variety of skills including group workâ, self-awareness, conflict resolution, and communicating emotionâs.â

“It’s sad how girls’ education is such a highly contested idea because education is a beautiful thing. I love looking at kids’ faces when they realise they’ve made a breakthrough, no matter how big or small,” said Gabrielle Flores.

Education creates meaningful opportunities for reflection – and there was no better reminder of this than our experience during International Day of the Girl 2014 in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Through celebrations such as IDG we are reminded of the small, but critical steps we can all take towards the global effort to educate girls.â¨

NYU Abu Dhabi mentors: Charlotte Ellen Gundry (United Kingdom), Mitali Banerji (India), Safa F Kashaf (Pakistan), Gabrielle Flores (Philippines), Claire (Louise) Okatch (Kenya), Melinda Szekeres (Hungary), Ritu Muralidharan (India) and Sofia Gomez-Doyle (USA).

NYU Abu Dhabi’s Women’s Leadership Network provides opportunities for dialogue and action related to women’s equality, empowerment and leadership, and encourages members to take on projects of personal meaning that promote these three purposes. It is the hope of the WLN that members will apply the skills and perspectives they gain through their participation to the advancement of women and girls in their home countries.

More news

See all news