If Suzana Salim was a born follower, she would have followed in the footsteps of many girls in her hometown of Chittagong, Bangladesh, leaving school at an early age to get married.
But Suzana was born lucky. Her parents understood the value of a good education. And although her mother did marry at 16, she refused to give up her schooling, continuing her studies long after Suzana was born. With that same determined spirit and her father’s blessing, Suzana broke with local tradition.
“I used to travel an hour to go to school everyday. My friends and most of my cousins were married young and did not continue their education. Men are expected to succeed after completing their education while women are supposed to get married.”
Suzana’s father worked hard to afford to keep her in school. But financial setbacks and health issues for both her father and her younger sister put Suzana’s educational future in jeopardy.
Enter Wedu, a non-profit organization founded in 2012 by Hearts on Fire Visionaries Mario Ferro and Mari Sawai. Wedu scouts out the most promising young women in the least developed countries of Asia, pronouncing them “rising stars,” and helping to bring out their leadership potential through innovative financing for college and lifelong mentorship. The mentors provide a one-on-one support system during critical stages of a young woman’s life, giving her the confidence and skills she needs to create her own successes and realize her goals.
A year-and-a-half ago, Suzana Salim became one of Wedu’s rising stars.
“My journey as a Rising Star was one of self-discovery. I learned things about myself that I was not aware of before. Before I was in the program, I used to volunteer and work behind the scenes. But Wedu made me realize that I have what it takes to be a leader. I expanded my boundaries and tested my limits.”
Suzana points to her Wedu mentor as the wind beneath her wings.
“Three months into the program, I met my mentor, Emily Cholette, an exceptional human being who taught me that it is important to be myself. Emily is not only a role model and a guide in my life, but she is also a friend to me during hard times. Besides the leadership lessons, Emily and I talk about my goals and how to go about achieving them.”
One of Suzana’s immediate goals is to earn her college degree at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, which she is attending now with financial assistance from Wedu. Since starting there, she has helped organize a Model United Nations conference and established the university’s first campus newsletter, with a little help from her friend and mentor.
“I was having trouble figuring out how to design the newsletter and what to put in it. Emily sent me links to her own high school and university newspapers as well as several others and introduced me to survey monkey which helped propel me to publish my first newsletter.”
As Suzana continues to find her own voice, she envisions becoming the voice of all women in Bangladesh and leading a women’s liberation movement, which is sorely needed. 87% of Bangladeshi women experience domestic violence and an estimated one-third of all girls marry before the age of 15.
And though women in Bangladesh are starting to make noteworthy strides, earning high positions in government and the military, most women work in dangerous and low-paying jobs. In fact, Suzana is currently finishing work on a documentary about a female rickshaw puller in Chittagong and trying to raise money to buy the woman her own rickshaw, turning her into an entrepreneur.
Suzana realizes that changing the plight of women in Bangladesh is going to require hard work and persistence, bolstered by the kind of self-confidence and support that she says she has received from Wedu.
“I am not nervous anymore to talk to strangers who have different ideologies, who are from different backgrounds. I write as much as I can and I give speeches.”
This summer, Suzana will be visiting schools in Chittagong to talk about the taboos and superstitions surrounding menstruation which can put a girl’s health at risk. But, with all she is accomplishing, Suzana says that one of the most important things she has learned from Wedu’s mentorship program is empathy.
“(The idea is) to help other people because you feel what they are going through. I feel that I have so many things to be thankful for and that I can help my community and underprivileged people in my own ways. Wedu teaches females to be leaders but it also teaches us to be humans and I am extremely grateful to be a part of their process.”
Since its founding four years ago, Wedu has expanded its reach to include students and mentors in 25 countries, with a goal of naming one thousand Rising Stars like Suzana by 2018.
To find out more about how you can join the wedu team, go to Weduglobal.org.