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Easthampton educator mentors Afghanistani woman

Nancy Sykes, a volunteer teacher and mentor for the SOLA school in Afghanistan, greets a student Friday during a weekly video session using Skype.

Nancy Sykes, a volunteer teacher and mentor for the SOLA school in Afghanistan, greets a student Friday during a weekly video session using Skype. JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

— On Fridays, School Committee member and veteran educator Nancy Lee Sykes rises early to keep a standing 7 a.m. appointment.

She heads to the cozy study on the second floor of her Mutter Street home, turns on her computer and waits for the image of a young friend in Kabul, Afghanistan to appear on the screen.

Since August, Sykes has been a volunteer mentor to a student at the School of Leadership Afghanistan, known as SOLA, whose name means peace in the Pashtun language. Leaders of the school describe it as the country’s first boarding school for girls.

The young woman she is working with is a 20-year-old from the provinces who has assumed the role of house mother at the boarding school. Sykes has been advising her about how to set up study hall sessions, use flash cards and other strategies for group learning. Students at the school have pledged to speak only English.

“It’s not a typical school the way we think of a school,” said Sykes, 71, as she waited for her overseas Skype connection to power up on a recent Friday morning.

“It’s a house in Kabul where girls of varying ages, from different provinces and speaking different languages have come — all with the promise of pursuing their education,” she said.

The plight of schoolgirls in Afghanistan and its regional neighbors was thrust into the world spotlight again last month when 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot by a Taliban assassin on her way home from school in Pakistan.

Yousafzai, who is recovering in a hospital in England, is a leading advocate for increasing girls access to education — a goal the Taliban and other religious extremists oppose.

SOLA, founded in 2008 by Ted Achilles, a former director for youth programs of the American Councils for International Education, and Kabul native Shabana Basij-Rasikh — who graduated earlier this year from Middlebury College in Vermont — estimates only 6 percent of women over the age of 25 in Afghanistan have received any formal education.

The Kabul school has evolved since it began four years ago with just four students, says Rian Smith, SOLA’s volunteer director of U.S. programs.

“We just accepted 14 new students and two of them are boys,” said Smith, who is Achilles’ niece, in a recent phone interview from her home in Rhode Island. “We now have more access to schools in the U.S. and media coverage of our program has skyrocketed.”

The school’s $800,000 budget — much of which is used for Internet services — comes from private donors and foundation grants, Smith said. The newest award is a $100,000 matching grant from the Bezos Family Foundation established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and his wife.

Sykes said many of the Kabul school’s 25 students attend in secret so as not to endanger themselves or their families. “They’re going against everything they’ve been brought up to do,” she said.

Sykes was careful not to reveal the name of the student she is mentoring, or allow photographs.

Links to the Pioneer Valley

Last month, Basij-Rasikh — who disguised herself as a boy in order to attend school in Afghanistan — visited Deerfield Academy and Northfield Mount Hermon School, where one of SOLA’s students is now studying.

The Kabul school has also sent its graduates to Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, as well as other schools on the East Coast.

Sykes, one of 30 mentors now working with the school in Afghanistan, had a chance to meet Basij-Rasikh in person in August.

“The moment I encountered her, I was hooked,” Sykes said. “I have no doubt she is going to be president of her country someday.”

A former high school teacher and assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Western New England University Law School, Sykes spent the past three years teaching at King’s Academy boarding school in Jordan.

“Teaching has always been my love,” Sykes said. “For this project, Skype is the miracle.”

Online mentoring

At the start of a recent mentoring session, the young woman’s face, framed by a white headscarf, appears on Sykes’ computer. It’s 3:30 p.m., Kabul time and the girls have been enjoying a going-away party for one of their volunteers.

“How are things going with the girls?” Sykes asks.

“The idea we had for them to work in groups is going great,” the young woman replies.

“And did you have a good holiday with your family?” her mentor asks, referring to the Muslim religious festival of Eid-al-Adha.

“I really liked being at home with all the family members together,” the student says. “We had good eats.”

She disappears for a moment and then to Sykes’ amazement, Basij-Rasikh appears onscreen.

“Surprise!” she grins. “Nancy, I am coming back to the U.S. fairly soon.”

She and Sykes discuss online resources for school projects and SOLA’s recent fundraising activities. Soon, Sykes’ advisee returns to finish the conversation, and agrees to answer a question from a stranger about what she’s gained from having a mentor.

“I am the residential advisor and I don’t know how to deal with all the problems of girls,” the woman says. “I don’t have any hour for my own self to study and read. But then Nancy suggested monitors and study hall, so now I do have some time.”

She says she’s applying to colleges in the U.S., where she hopes to study political science, anthropology or business. “I want to be a foreign minister or ambassador for Afghanistan,” the young woman says.

Sykes says mentoring her Afghanistani student has been a reminder of all they share in common.

“I don’t know why we think people in other lands are so different from us,” she said. “They have the same kinds of problems we do.”

Her experience with SOLA has also made her more optimistic about Afghanistan’s future.

“This is a group of young women who crave education,” Sykes said. “Reading the news, you hear horrible things that are happening there. This is another, more hopeful side of that country.”

Information about SOLA and its mentorship program is available online at the SOLA website.


UMass School of Education receives funding to support higher education in Afghanistan

Friday, November 2, 2012

AMHERST — The School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is expanding its work in supporting higher education in Afghanistan. A new $11.2 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development will more than double funding for the school’s Center for International Education. Since 2006, the center has worked with Afghanistan’s government to set up that country’s …

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