The Magic of Education for Girls – An Evening With The Asian University for Women

First lady Akie Abe (center) with Duth Kimsru (left) and Kamala K.C. (right)

First lady Akie Abe (center) with Duth Kimsru (left) and Kamala K.C. (right)

The Asian University for Women (AUW) is a beacon of hope for women across South and Southeast Asia who aspire to learn and grow and become global citizens.  Never was that more apparent than last night when the Japan support committee of AUW held their annual film event in support of the university. Not only did the group show the inspiring documentary film “Girl Rising” about the critical importance of education for girls in the developing world, but two students who graduated from the university in their inaugural graduation in 2013 came to Tokyo to address the crowd and show first hand what an education can do.

The girls, Kimsru, from Cambodia, and Kamala, from Nepal, both outlined the sometimes perilous journey they took just to get to AUW, which is located in Chittagong, Bangladesh.  Kimsru mentioned her village, which did not have electricity or running water, but that her mother moved her and her siblings from the village into the capital city, Phnom Pehn, so that she might study, both working and

First Lady Akie Abe with a few members of the AUW Japan Support Committee

First Lady Akie Abe with a few members of the AUW Japan Support Committee

taking in laundry to finance her daughter’s education.  Kamala talked about how she not only had to walk 90 minutes each way to get to the closest high school, but had to work full time teaching the primary grades as well as complete her own studies in order to finish her secondary degree.  Both girls passionately spoke about their time at AUW, the joy they found in learning, their hunger to become global citizens, and the golden opportunities that higher education – in English! – has given them. Currently Kimsru works for a nonprofit organization in Phnom Phen, teaching kids about practical life skills and urging them to stay in school.  Kamala is pursuing graduate education in South Korea.

AUW has a place on the global stage, as evidenced by the commitment to the school by Japan’s First Lady, Akie Abe.  Mrs. Abe took time out of her busy schedule to meet the girls and left a message to be played for the entire audience where she discussed her own visit to AUW in Bangladesh in 2011 when was so impressed by the school, its programs, and the girls themselves, that she agreed to become a patron of the university. She urged others to similarly support the school and education for women.  There’s more information available about the school and its extraordinary programs on their website. Please go look at it; you can’t help but be touched and inspired by it.

I have written before about AUW, in 2010, and 2013. Both times I told you how truly amazing the girls are and how touched we are as a family to have the experience of interacting with these amazing young ladies. This year was as special as years past, perhaps more so because of our own recent life experiences.  My daughter Sydney is wearing her new t-shirt today, the one designed and sold by the ASIJ support group of AUW, which supported the event.  She bought it with her own money and it reads, “She believed she could, so she did!”  It’s a message of determination, of grit and of hope.  Sydney wears it in support of those girls who are less fortunate than she is to have the spectacular education that she does.  Sydney won’t forget, and nor will I.  Together we can make a difference in the lives of young women across the globe.

Education for Expat Kids – or: So I Entered A Blog Contest

Japan flagThis blog is lucky enough to be listed on a great site for expats across the globe called Expats Blog.  In fact, look at it on May 21st (don’t worry, I’ll remind you) and I’ll have a featured interview on the site.  But for today, please go look at it to see my entry in their blog contest.  The theme of the contest is International schools, a subject near to my heart since I have one child at Nishimachi and the other at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) so I can’t help but compare them sometimes.

For the contest, bloggers had to write about education abroad and/or international schools, but I wanted to focus on a more specific aspect of the kids’ schooling rather than writing a post about general education in Japan.  I chose to write about Japanese language skills.

I haven’t written much about our language abilities lately, but suffice to say, I’m rapidly becoming the dummy in the house as the kids’ language skills – writing, reading and speaking – improve rapidly with daily instruction and weekly tutor support.  But, as you will see in the post, the kids are learning different Japanese.  My son is learning Japanese as a foreign language at ASIJ and my daughter is taught more natively at NIS, which has a strong bilingual program.  It’s an interesting contrast as my daughter chats easily with friends, while my son corrects her grammar.  They’re both learning beautifully, but differently.  It’s neat to watch.

In entering these Expats Blog contests, I am eligible to win prizes.  One of the prizes is for comments on my post on their site.  So please click to read the post (here) and then, if you’re so moved, write a comment.

If you normally enjoy my posts, then you will really enjoy this one on Japanese language learning in international schools.  Give it a look and let me know what you think.  Expats Blog is a great site – and a wonderful place for expats to go for information.  I’m thrilled to be listed on their site!

The Key, But Not The Answer

Last week, Trisha Wooldridge and I spent quite a while discussing freedom, safety, education and other assorted issues on our blogs.  Yesterday, she wrote a particularly thought-provoking short essay on questioning as a response to those conversations.  She said that of the ideas that we discussed, that was the one that stood out to her the most.  For me, the idea to which I kept returning was that of personal choice.

Adults – especially American adults – have the freedom of choice for everything in their lives.  They can go to college or not; they can have children or not; they can get a job or not.  So many people feel stuck in their lives.  If only I could save more money, they say.  If only I could go back to school.  If only, if only. I am just cynical enough to believe that people can choose to better their lives.

But that is a double-edged sword, most people would tell me.  The single mother on welfare doesn’t think that she has any choices.  But that’s not what I believe. She could work full time and take online courses toward a degree which would net her a better job. I balance my cynicism with a basic belief in the human spirit.  With hard work, all things are possible.  “Can I be president someday?” my young son asks me.  I assure him that if he works hard enough, it is indeed possible that he could be president.  Stay in school; don’t get pregnant; don’t do drugs.  These are the things I tell my kids.  They have to make smart choices – it is my job as their mother to help them make smart choices.

The problems lie within the education system.  We take education for granted in the U.S. and even here in Japan where the literacy rate is well over 90%.  Not all people have the access to schools the way we do.  There are millions of children across the globe who do not have the opportunity to attend school, whether it’s because they have to work to help the family or it’s to dangerous or even too far to get to a school.  We need to appreciate the gift of education – what education gives us in the long run.  Throwing money at the problem is not going to help.  What is going to help is people choosing to value that education.  Parents have to choose to support the schools not financially, but with volunteer hours and belief in the system.  Tell the kids to behave in school. Model good behavior.  These are choices that parents and children have to make in order to succeed.

As I pointed out in the conversation last week, there are no easy answers to any of these questions.  But it is important to ask the questions, search for the answers and ultimately to make good choices.  Sometimes the right choice isn’t the popular choice, but doing what is right should trump doing what is easy.  And that, my friends, takes hard work.  But that’s a conversation for another day.

Critical Thinking, Freedom, Your Right And Responsibility to Creativity: At What Cost? Part TWO!

Yesterday on Trisha Wooldridge’s blog, she and I began a debate on personal freedom and safety and ways to balance the two in a free society.  We talked a bit about the issues facing the U.S. and Japan (the countries where we live) and began to discuss potential resolutions to the issues involving education and personal responsibility.  Today we continue the debate and discuss more educational issues along with the realities and unrealities of financing real solutions. We also talk seriously about the way people respond to such issues.  Enjoy!

Trisha: I think, the overall problem with education, is that it isn’t supported by the U.S. culture.

Aimee: Whew, and that’s going to be an issue going forward in the world economy!

Trisha: I know – and the extent to which we support “personal liberty” in education is also an extreme.  Everyone is a winner, everyone just does things “differently,” and everyone’s opinion – whether it’s researched or not, regardless of resources – is important and cherished.

Trisha: Personal liberty is feeding into an extremely egotistical culture that is missing the responsibility cost.

Aimee: Everyone is a winner, everyone gets their ego stroked and there is little merit in winning anymore.  In that way you don’t have to take responsibility for anything you do!

Trisha: Exactly – so how do we draw the line to prevent this extreme personal liberty?

Aimee: Make education merit-based again not just a right. There are people who will get into the best schools, get the best grades and those will be the people who work the hardest. That goes for making the team too.  The kid who works out the most and practices the hardest makes the team and those who are lazy don’t make it.

Trisha: But if the local culture of a region or a group puts a child at a disadvantage, and the child doesn’t have the resources, how can s/he have a chance?  For example, you’ve got a lot of poverty-stricken urban and rural areas with out of date books and a lack of computers and classes of 40+ students per teacher.  Even those that work the hardest are stunted.

Aimee: Well I do know that throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer. Washington DC has some of the worst schools in the country and their spending per child is the highest in the nation. (*this was true in 2003, but in 2006, the last time the numbers were calculated, Washington DC ranked third behind New York and New Jersey)

Aimee: This is where the original intent of affirmative action comes in, I think.  It’s just been taken advantage of as a program and is no longer affective. Send the kids to summer school. Or camp. Do year-round schooling. Different programs that are merit-based for the kids.

Trisha: Someone still has to pay for the summer school/camp and schooling. I mean… there is also the appropriation of funds that get “thrown” at the school problem.  Look at the salaries of school superintendants – and the high-ranking government officials overseeing the schools.

Aimee: Yes, but I think a lot of federal funding can be reorganized.

Trisha: Capping the pay infringes on the “capitalist” mentality.

Aimee: Yes. But that’s not what I mean. There’s a lot of wasted funding – programs that don’t work. The system needs an overhaul. I don’t know how to do it, but education needs help in the U.S.

Trisha: And there needs to be a balance of personal liberty for students with meeting certain levels.

Aimee: At a certain point Darwinism takes over. Give the students the choice to enter programs and the ones who want to succeed will. Kids, any more than adults, can’t be forced into education.  They might regret it later, but they can go back to school. I might be overoptimistic or oversimplifying it, but I don’t believe it’s ever too late to learn.

Trisha: But parents aren’t allowing that, currently.  You’ve got so many parents who are suing schools for not passing their “darlings.” And, if not suing, harassing the teachers and staff.

Aimee: Ugh – I’m going to sound like an old lady again – but parents have to be told to trust the schools.  Tort reform – get frivolous law suits thrown out of courts. I’m idealizing.

Trisha: Would LOVE to see that.  But, alas, yes: idealistic. At the same time, I wouldn’t go so far as to “trust” schools.  I don’t know if that’s the right word… I don’t trust schools.  I flubbed my way through most of mine, and I know far too many teachers who do abuse their power and have favorites.

Aimee: I’m not sure what to say!

Trisha: It goes back to responsible parenting… we’re quite cyclical on this topic, aren’t we?  I’m sounding like an old lady, myself, but my parents most certainly knew how I was doing in school and how much effort I was putting in.  (More or less – but definitely more than most parents I see.)

Aimee: If I got in trouble at school my mom and dad would ask me what I did.  Today the parents ask what the teachers did TO the kids.

Trisha: And we’re back to personal responsibility and accountability.  If we can’t force people to be accountable – how do we handle that?

Aimee: That’s their choice. We have to let people fail. We collectively hate to see people fail, but some people are going to fail.

Trisha: People failing’s part is fine with me… but how do we get people to take responsibility for their failure – or, in this case, let their kids take responsibility for their failure?

Aimee: Tort reform! Throw out the parents’ law suits!!! There’s no real answer here, you know.

Trisha: I know… but it’s good to ask the questions.  I don’t know if enough people are asking questions and trying to get to the root of the problem.

Aimee: I agree with you on that.

Trisha: And, with the shakiness of personal responsibility/loss of critical thinking – I don’t know that people realize they should be asking questions.

Aimee: I worry about that actually. I worry that when the public goes to the polls to elect an important official that they don’t know the issues.  They don’t read the paper – or the internet – and understand what the candidates stand for.  My faith in the American public is shaky at best. All because of the lack of critical thinking.

Trisha: And the problem seems to be coming from both extremes: excessive personal liberty = and the loss of personal liberty

Aimee: Well there are similar problems in Japan frankly.

Trisha: The government, as it’s moving with its legislation, from No Child Left Behind to the Patriot Act to the new Health Care, is not supporting personal liberty or personal accountability, and the two really have to go hand in hand.

Aimee: The parents get upset because the kids aren’t pushed enough – they want personalized attention, things like that.  It’s different, but similar.  Too much basis in conformity – but wanting to be ahead of the pack too.  Think of it this way, you wouldn’t give your teenager personal freedoms if he wasn’t responsible enough for them.

Trisha: So… almost the opposite sides of two coins

Aimee: Yes. Until the American public is ready for the freedom – can take personal responsibility, maybe the public they can’t have the freedom.

Trisha: Also, though, with the teenager, you have to start somewhere.  If the teen hasn’t the chance to prove responsibility because he’s so sheltered, where do you go from there?

Aimee: That’s a parent-eyed view and a devil’s advocate stance.

Trisha: That’s a hard one because the people who do have that responsibility are punished.  It’s like the responsible teen who gets grounded and restricted because of the troublesome sibling.

Aimee: You’re right.  I don’t believe in so much legislation anyway.

Trisha: Nor I.  I’m for small government, personally, and LMTFA… (if that’s an appropriate acronym for our professional-ish debate.)

Aimee: We’re back to the same question – how do we convince the public to take personal responsibility for their actions so that they can have all of the personal freedoms they crave?  AND on the other side of the coin, how do we convince the Japanese people that they WANT personal freedoms so their personal responsibility is rewarded and they can think and live creatively and critically?

Trisha: … While allowing them to have their personal liberty of ignorance and wanting to be safe?

Trisha: I think, on the Internet, there are subcultures that are having conversations on this (like you and I are), and that, in and of itself, is a positive movement.

Aimee: It is clear that if something doesn’t happen soon, the U.S. is going to lose its place of prominence on the world stage.  And Japan is not going to be its successor. I agree that there are movements. Grassroots movements.  Who is it that said, “Never stop believing that a small group of like minded people can change the world.  Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”  It might have been Margaret Mead.

Trisha: I believe so, yes!  Perhaps a future conversation should be how the Internet is affecting change in global education?

Aimee: Phew, that’s a big one. The bottom line is that until people can take responsibility for their actions, personal liberties will be further and further eroded in society as the governments look to legislate and assign blame. They will do so with good intentions – the intent of protecting the people, but we will end up with a society of robots who cannot think for themselves.

Trisha: Or, a rebellion.  At least in the U.S.  (I don’t know about Japan.)  There are an awful lot of grassroots movements of people willing to fight – quite literally and not just in paper – to maintain their constitutional rights.

Aimee: The thinkers vs. non-thinkers?

Trisha: If we take some positive steps in real education reform that takes into account personal accountability, we could avert those negative outcomes.

Aimee: And that’s why we’re both educators, isn’t it?

Trisha: Not even as black and white as thinkers vs. non-thinkers.

Aimee: Writers and educators and thinkers!

Trisha:   Yes – absolutely.  And, at least for us, being able to write and communicate is the basis for all this.  Good writing embodies critical thinking and looking at the many sides of an issue.

Watch this space and also Trish’s blog! Next week we’re going to post some follow-up, responses and further thoughts on these issues.