Last May, during Sweet Briar’s commencement, a quiet scene unfolded among people special to one another in extraordinary ways. The larger story had, in fact, taken place over the previous four years.
Two Afghan students hugged the woman who’d make their educations in the United States possible. One, Fazila Noorzad, wore Anne Parker Schmalz’s 1962 class ring. The other, Huma Manati, has her Tau Phi charm. The gifts symbolize what they have come to mean to each other.
Schmalz, her husband Robert, friends and family, and several alumnae supplemented scholarships to fund Noorzad’s and Manati’s tuition and board at Sweet Briar through the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. Schmalz drove the effort, convinced Sweet Briar is an ideal environment for the students that would also be reassuring to their families at home.
“I thought it would be good for Sweet Briar to have them there too, as a resource and a reminder of what is going on in the wider world,” Schmalz said, recalling her own experiences. “When I was a student I had a good friend there from Pakistan and was able to minor in Asian studies.”
Noorzad and Manati didn’t pick Sweet Briar — they applied through the IEAW, which finds placements for the students. But both say their experiences bore out Schmalz’s intuition of a good fit. Noorzad says being all-women and in a rural location did put her family at ease.
Manati notes that without her alumnae patrons and a College scholarship, the IEAW could not have placed her here. “When I look back, I cannot imagine myself in a better academic atmosphere than Sweet Briar,” she said. “Sweet Briar’s and Sweet Briar alumnae’s willingness and generosity is perhaps the only reason why I am here today.”
Among those who provided financial assistance were Schmalz’s classmates Ann Ritchie Baruch, Julia Shields, Jean Gantt Nuzum, Betsy Shure Gross and Frances Early, her mother’s 1936 classmates Mary “Polly” Ewing, Logan Johns and Elizabeth “Pinky” Pinkerton Scott, and Cornelia Zinsser ’52.
It’s hard to overstate what donors like them and people like Schmalz who do the work of the IEAW means to the women they serve.
“Wow,” said Noorzad, who describes Schmalz as a godmother to her. “Coming from a war-torn country where education opportunities are very limited, I can only say that I am thankful and grateful for being able to graduate from a college in the U.S.”
She has repaid the favor by working with the IEAW since the summer of 2010, recruiting, helping with visas and applications, and making fund-raising trips to meet supporters such as former first lady Laura Bush. She is working for the IEAW and the International Institute of Rhode Island, and has been accepted into the UMass Women in Politics and Public Policy Graduate Certificate Program to pursue a master’s in public policy. Then she wants to go home, to Kabul.
“No one can bring change within a couple of years when the destruction is massive,” she says of her homeland. “Afghanistan is a hard case but not impossible.”
And men can’t do it alone. “We are half the population — they can’t get away from us,” Noorzad said. “Education gives women the power to be independent financially. IEAW students become educated and they change their families and relatives views about women’s status in society. These girls return to Afghanistan and hold good-paying jobs, which automatically elevates their standing within a family and eventually the society. Change through the IEAW is slow but definite and positive.”
Manati, too, made her way around the U.S. during her four years as she pursued a major in law and international affairs. She also is interested in women and community and plans to work in human and civil rights.
So it’s not hard to imagine emotion and pride welling in their throats as Anne and Robert Schmalz sat among the parents at Sweet Briar’s 102nd commencement. Throughout the four years, they stayed in touch by phone, email and visits during breaks.
“We followed their progress with interest and enjoyed knowing that they were doing well academically and that they had made friends on campus,” Anne Schmalz says. “They sometimes shared their worries about what was going on at home, and we worried along with them as the situation there has not improved. Each August, I worried that they might not make it back [from Afghanistan]. Just getting their visa was a huge challenge.”
Schmalz sometimes gave advice they didn’t want, but she knows they respect her as an elder. “They have called me ‘Grannie.’ I love that,” she says.
“Watching them graduate was an emotional experience, as we were so aware of how hard they had worked and all of the challenges they had met, and yet we were also very aware of the big unknown of what actually can be their future as educated women in Afghanistan. We carried the hopes for their success of all those who had helped us fund our part of their education. I wanted the ceremony to stop and to make everyone there watching listen to their stories and somehow recognize their achievements.”