At Bryn Mawr 125th event, women's educators look at global goals

Caroline Ndarua of Kenya , in the conference hall at Bryn Mawr College, sees promise in the group effort.
Caroline Ndarua of Kenya , in the conference hall at Bryn Mawr College, sees promise in the group effort.
Posted: September 25, 2010

Rebecca Winthrop sat quietly in the back of the cathedral-like auditorium on the Bryn Mawr College campus, listening carefully.

Winthrop, an expert in education in developing countries and a fellow at the Brookings Institute, was deeply interested in the subject - international collaboration in women's higher education.

But she was waiting for someone to address the elephant in the room during the second day Friday of an international conference, "Heritage and Hope: Women's Education in a Global Context."

"Exchange programs," she finally said during a question-and-answer session, "remain for the few and the very, very lucky."

Once she had the floor, she described another major initiative gaining traction: the University of the People, a tuition-free, exclusively online degree program available to women globally.

"By just getting basic skills for women in the developing world," she said, "they become social-change agents."

No one was about to disagree.

"Open-source learning," agreed Jane McAuliffe, Bryn Mawr's president, "could be a worldwide democratization of higher education."

For all the erudite presentations, PowerPoints, and references to pedagogical constructs, this three-day conference had at its heart a very practical goal: To forge partnerships among academic leaders from around the world. And as the meetings and breakout sessions progressed, an underlying theme emerged: that ultimately, societies that discriminate against women can change only when women become armed with education.

During the session, a panel of experts, including the leaders of four all-women's colleges, talked about the importance of international collaboration. The future, they said, depends on reaching across continents to allow women everywhere to study and learn and collectively put their minds to work solving global problems.

Last year, more than 250,000 U.S. students studied abroad and more than 600,000 foreign students studied at American universities. But, to Winthrop's point, while there is no substitute for the experience of living in another culture, most students in poor nations, especially women, cannot afford to travel.

Wellesley College president Kim Bottomly described a program in which students spend time abroad, then present their research to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

She and the other educational leaders vowed to encourage undergraduates to learn foreign languages and strategized about how to share faculty.

"A lot of networks are going to be built," Caroline Ndarua, head of finance and administration at Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology in Nairobi, Kenya, said of the conference.

Ndarua's father, an architect, founded the university 18 years ago with only seven students. There are now 200, and the graduates have gone on to careers in banking, education and medicine.

The youngest of eight children, six of them girls, Ndarua said she was always expected to get a college education. "My father saw women as disadvantaged and wanted to help them, especially in the sciences. Through science, you are able to solve problems."

In Kenyan society, women are quickly gaining stature, she said. "In some rural areas, they still don't want to educate girls. There is an opportunity cost. They are needed to work on the farms. And marriage is very important in some societies. Families sell off their girls to gain from their dowries. But urban women and girls are being educated the same as in the United States. Families want to send them to the best universities."

The change in gender status, however, has created a "shake-up" in Kenyan society. "Men are having problems," she said. "They are not seeing their value in families. There are repercussions, of course, because everybody is fighting to have a better life."

Princess Lolowah al-Faisal, vice chancellor of Saudi Arabia's first private women's university, described educational opportunities for women in her country in ways that defied Western stereotypes.

"We must promote cultural understanding," she said.

In Saudi Arabia, women's legal rights exceed the public's willingness to embrace them, Faisal said. "By law, salaries are equal," she said. "In every family, daughters have to finish high school."

And although women don't drive, that is by choice, she said. "I think women should drive. It is time now. Women are giving just as much to society as men. The king is not against it. The crown prince is not against it. There is no law against it. It just needs to get through society."

The princess, whose mother founded Effat University, holds an honorary doctor of humane letters from Mount Holyoke College. She embraced the idea of online universities. "I hope we arrive to a certain network where everybody shares this knowledge," she said.

But in developing nations, where so many people still have no electricity, she said, computers are not yet practical.

At Effat, she said, students receive a solid liberal arts education, but with cultural and religious accommodations. "There are things our society wouldn't accept, such as painting nudes," she said. "What we want of our graduates is to become good Muslims, to go out and live excellent lives. A society with uneducated women is dead."

Contrary to what many believe both in the United States and in her own country, the Quran does not place women in an inferior role, she said.

"Someone asked the prophet, 'Whom shall I be grateful for?' And he said, 'Your mother. Your mother. Your mother. Then your father.' People have forgotten this," she said. "This is what we're trying to bring back to our young people. The mother is the nation-builder. If she doesn't have the knowledge or the tools, then she won't help the nation."

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or

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