February 22, 2023

Hun Students and Staff Reach Out To Teach Young Women in Afghanistan

TEACHING YOUNG WOMEN: Zahra Y., co-founder of the Afghan Education Student Outreach Project at the Hun School.

By Donald Gilpin

Every Thursday night from 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Seth Holm, chair of the Modern Languages and Classics Department at The Hun School of Princeton, logs onto the internet to teach a class for about 30 young women who are just waking up in Afghanistan, eager for schooling that has been forbidden to them in their home country.

Holm and his team of Hun students are helping these Afghan students to learn English so they can pursue further education outside of Afghanistan. Since its inception in June of last year, this initiative at Hun, the Afghan Education Student Outreach Project, has grown rapidly. Now, in addition to the Thursday night sessions, it also includes a “phone buddy” program, with Hun students talking with Afghan counterparts once a week; a one-on-one mentoring program; collaboration with the nonprofit New Jersey-based Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF); and the Hun School’s offering of two scholarships for one young Afghan woman to arrive on campus this spring and another by next fall.

Hun Head of School Jon Brougham emphasized the importance of the project, praising Holm and the student initiators. “The work that our students are doing, led by Zahra, Hanan, Steven, and Dr. Holm, is incredible,” he said. “This is a passion project with real meaning for the Afghan girls they are working with, but also for them and the Hun community as a whole. The right to learn, grow, and share a human connection should be universal.”

Since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover of Afghanistan, the lives of women and girls have been restricted more and more, with increasing limitations on employment, public interactions, education, and other human rights. All public schools after sixth grade, private education centers, and all universities in Afghanistan are now closed to girls and women, who are in most cases essentially confined to their homes.

One of the  founders of Hun’s outreach project, Zahra Y. (whose last name is withheld at her request), a young woman whose education in Afghanistan ended soon after she had enrolled in Kabul University, came  to the Hun School in January 2022 with the help of AGFAF and Hun’s offer of a post-graduate scholarship.

“As a girl in Afghanistan, coming to the Hun School was a huge change for me,” she wrote in an email from the college in Ohio where she enrolled after graduating from Hun in June. “It was culturally so different and the opportunities they have in this school were a great experience for me that made me think about all those girls who were deprived of education back home.”

She continued, “I felt for them because I was in their position just a few months earlier. I had a feeling of guilt that I left all those girls behind. So I wanted to share my experience and my knowledge with them.”

About a year ago Zahra approached Holm with an idea for a project. She wanted to offer an online English class for girls in Afghanistan. Holm readily agreed to help. Zahra teamed up with two friends, Hanan Alsaffar and Steven Feng, and they quickly got the project started, raising money on a GoFundMe site for students who couldn’t afford their own internet costs. They put out a call for Afghan students on Facebook and got 250 responses in just two days. 

Alsaffar, who is from Bahrain and currently a senior at Hun, described how her experience in organizing and tutoring in the program has changed her perspectives on Afghanistan. “Before the class it was to me like other terrible things happening in the world,” she said. “I did not have a personal connection to what’s happening there. But now, especially after getting to know Zahra, after being friends with her and after getting to know the students in the class, and especially my mentee, now I accept my responsibility to be an advocate and my responsibility to help.”

She continued, “I don’t see this as a favor I give to the students. I think this is a responsibility, but not just for me. It’s everyone’s responsibility to help, especially because those students did not choose to be in this situation. They were forced to be in it, and if we have the capability to help, then we should.” 

Zahra and Alsaffar developed a roster of about 20 students, selected from the many applicants, and the class began in the first week of June last year with two two-hour sessions per week. “It was supposed to be a four-week class, but it became so important and so enriching and joyful that none of us really wanted to stop,” said Holm. “So we kept it going.”

Since school started up again in September, the online class has been held one night a week every week, with enrollment growing from 20 to about 35. “People have invited friends, younger sisters, things like that, and almost everyone from the original group has continued,” he added.

In addition to the weekly class meetings, a number of Hun School student volunteers speak with their Afghan phone buddies once a week for English conversation practice. Holm noted that many of the young women in the class were of college age and somewhat advanced in their English language skills, so he and his Hun student colleagues decided to expand into a one-on-one mentoring program for young women of high school age.

“We send assignments to the students, and then we help them respond to the assignments,” said Alsaffar. “The idea is to help younger students in the class to do the assignments.”

As the program continues to expand, in addition to the Hun students, many of the mentors in the program are now advanced Afghan students. “Some of these Afghan girls are really important because they can speak their native language to students who are at a beginning level,” said Holm. “Many of these young women in my class are also tutoring one or two or sometimes three younger students on their own time.”

He continued, “It’s growing also because, in conjunction with AGFAF, we have more students who are interested in doing projects like this. We are developing intermediate and elementary level English classes, which will be taught by Hun students and Afghan students.”

Holm emphasized that some of his Afghan students are already expert language teachers. ”I have one student who has taught her younger sisters English and Turkish and is now teaching English to other students. She has taught lessons of the highest quality. If one of my teachers in the language department at the Hun School was giving lessons like this I would give them a glowing review. She’s done an amazing job.  We have about 100 applicants for each of the new classes. We’re working through those applications now, and we’ll be rolling out those classes by the end of the month.”

Holm commented on this unexpected new trajectory in his career at Hun. “A lot of weird things have coalesced, like the skills I have developed,” he said, pointing out the online teaching methods he gained during the COVID-19 pandemic; the project-based programs he created through Hun’s experiential learning mini-semester terms; and his second year as department chair, where he has polished his skills in fostering collaboration among teachers.

“I really feel like I’m chair for two departments. One is at the Hun School and the other is online with the students,” he said. “It’s so rewarding. The students are so eager. They need direction about how to get started, but once you give them direction they really take the reins and get the work done. It’s like working with professionals.”

Holm has also been working with the head of school, the chief financial officer, the head of admissions, and others in order to bring more of these students from Afghanistan to the Hun School. “Everyone was really moved by the story and really wanted to help,” he said. But even though Hun has extended two scholarship lines for girls from Afghanistan, the process is  complicated with many challenges that need to be met, including visas, funding, finding host families, and more.

“Students need a host family that can help during school breaks and can help with incidentals like computers and clothing to attend school,” said Hun Chief Marketing Officer Maureen Leming. “Often in these situations, they come with very little and we need many people to get involved to make sure that when these girls come they have what they need to be comfortable.”

She went on, “The school is very eager to help. We’re proud of everyone involved and the way the students have responded to this.  We’re happy to see it grow and continue and we’re very happy to bring more girls from Afghanistan to Hun. It’s beneficial to everyone involved.”

Zahra, who from her college in Ohio continues to work as a mentor in the program, has ambitious goals for the future. “My future plan is to first educate myself and then to work for education for everyone,” she said, “and create a nonprofit organization to support and improve the education system not only in my country, but also in the United States and in all countries all over the world.”

Reflecting on the Afghan students’ progress so far, Holm noted, “It’s really important for them to learn English so that they can have a sense of connection with the outside world through the phone buddies program, through the mentoring program, through the classes, but also having access to the internet and knowing English gives you access to the world. You can learn anything you want if you have the internet and you know English.”

He continued, “Girls in Afghanistan are often trapped in their houses, so these classes are the only community they have outside the four walls of their homes. Things are easing up a bit in some areas of Kabul, but their lives are always under a threat.”