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Ivy Day Address 2009

Shaharzad Akbar ’09

Shaharzad Akbar, a member of the Class of 2009, delivered the student speech at Smith College’s Ivy Day celebration on Saturday, May 16.

Greetings, everyone, or as we say in Afghanistan, Asalam allikum.

It is an honor to be standing in front of all of you today and have the opportunity to reflect upon my wonderful journey at Smith College.

The journey that brought me here today from the mountainous city of Kabul, started with a dream. A dream that seemed so distant in the dusty streets of my city and our modest home that I would push it back whenever I caught myself imagining it. Right before applying to Smith, I had stopped my undergraduate education at Kabul University. I was disappointed by the inefficient system of teaching and by the rigid definition of a proper female student that could not accommodate me and my passion for activism. After getting a full-time job with BBC in Afghanistan, I was the main bread-winner for our family, which includes my four sisters and two brothers. And although I was looking for educational opportunities abroad, I was not certain if I could actually go because of all our economic problems.

Once I received my acceptance letter to transfer to Smith College and learned about its generous financial aid package, my parents insisted that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that I must go. Their support made my decision obvious.

In the days before my departure, I remember the overwhelming sense of excitement -- and sadness -- that overtook me. My parents and I both thought that I wouldn't be able to return home before graduation due to the expensive airfare. I remember counting the months 'til May 2009 and consoling my mother that after all it is just three years. I remember my own fears about finding my place in the foreign country and being accepted by the community. I remember our struggle to put together the money for my ticket and my travel expenses. I arrived in the U.S. with $300, and I thought that would be enough at least for the first semester. Once at Smith, I learned my books alone would cost $300 -- and maybe I really did need a desk lamp and perhaps having a notebook was more necessary than I thought.

With the help from you and other loyal alumnae, Smith College provided financial support to me and my dear friend and country-mate Roya Mohammadi 2010 as soon as we arrived. I received a set of bed sheets and a pillow, got funding for my school books, and at the end of the year, I was saved from depression thanks to the generous aid from the Afghani Students Emergency Fund that enabled me to buy tickets to go home. During that summer, I helped plan and execute the Afghanistan-Pakistan Peace Conference, which brought together the tribal leaders and elders from both countries to negotiate their differences and to discuss a common strategy for the struggle against war on both sides of the border. I also had a chance to reconnect with my surprised and happy parents and friends.

By the first semester of my junior year, Smith had truly become my second home. I had found many friends, had learned how to relax and appreciate the beauty of the campus, and I tried to attend as many events as possible. Hungry for education and for exploring all the new perspectives I was encountering, I tried my best to balance school work, attending lectures, and participating in workshops. I had also learned how to use my time efficiently and work enough hours at the Five College Language Center to pay for most of my own expenses.

Among my brightest memories from Smith are the events that celebrate our Alumnae and other distinguished women. I clearly remember attending my first Rally Day. As a young educated woman from Afghanistan, most of my interactions in public had been with men; I had many educated male friends and most of my role models were men. In Kabul, to be respected in the masculine domains of work and education, I had always felt pressure to behave in a certain way. I had to work harder than everybody and constantly feel that my concerns were not addressed; that in some ways, I had to forget about being a woman in order to be accepted and successful. At that first Rally Day, sitting in Sage Hall and listening to the experiences of the amazing medal winners, tears of joy found their way to my eyes. I learned that it was okay to be a woman, to feel and to act like a woman in public, and that this was a strength, not a weakness. Leading an active public life would be challenging, but ultimately more rewarding, and I could do it just as all these remarkable women had done before me. I felt overjoyed and empowered.

Since then, whenever I think about hardships that will be awaiting me in grad school at Oxford University, where I will be going next, or in my career as a development expert in Afghanistan working at the grassroots level, I take heart from the fact that I am not alone. There are many pioneering women before me who have walked harder paths, and I have learned from their experiences. Leaving Smith, I carry with me the gift of being part of an inter-dependent global sisterhood of Smith faculty and alumnae who will support me, stand by me, and cheer for me throughout my life. It is an honor, a pleasure, and a blessing to be a Smithie. For me, it is no less than a miracle to have had the opportunity to grow and flourish in this supportive community.

Thank you for your part in making all of this possible. Tasha kur.