Through events like ethical fashion discussions and pop-up thrift sales, the Women’s Higher Education Now (WHEN) Alliance at Tufts aims to raise money for the Asian University for Women (AUW) while also raising awareness about the lack of educational opportunities for women from impoverished communities in Asia.
AUW is a university in Chittagong, Bangladesh that seeks to educate women from countries in Asia who might not have access to education otherwise. AUW began with an idea from Kamal Ahmad and support from the World Bank and UNESCO Task Force on Higher Education and Society. The university saw its first students — 130 women from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — arrive in 2008, according to its website.
“A lot of people that live in that region don’t have the money to send their children to college, and if they do, they usually send their first son or sons. Women just are not a priority in terms of higher education — education in general, but especially higher education. I think we all know from personal experience how big of an impact college can have on your future,” Julia Sasanuma, a member of the WHEN Alliance executive board, said.
“We are all very passionate about supporting this specific university because of its mission to educate the next generation of female leaders in Asia,” Sasanuma, a senior, added.
AUW launched Pathways for Promise in 2016 with the goal of extending their recruitment of students. This program seeks to reach women in particularly difficult situations, including refugees and women working in the garment industry.
Although WHEN Alliance is still working on becoming recognized by the Tufts Community Union Senate as an official campus organization, its members are extremely passionate about the work they’re doing. With varying connections to AUW, members of the WHEN Alliance executive board share a drive to expand the reach of women’s higher education.
Sasanuma and senior Erin Blank, another member of the WHEN Alliance executive board, became interested in fundraising for AUW while attending high school together in Tokyo. Blank said that their high school’s gender equality club, which they were both involved in, focused strongly on AUW.
“There’s a big support group in Tokyo that does a lot of fundraising and awareness events for the Asian University for Women. And so Julia and I have both been really passionate about it since high school, and when we got to Tufts we found that a cause like this was kind of lacking in Tufts’ clubs and organizations,” Blank said.
This passion led Sasanuma and Blank to get other Tufts students involved in the cause, including Zoe Adamopoulos, another member of the group’s executive board.
“I really believe educating women has the greatest multiplier effect in terms of economic development. Not only because they have the passion to go back and do all these things in their communities, but also because they are the people who will raise the next generation. And when they’ve been educated, they raise the next generation to value education, and they want their children, boys or girls, to have the education they got,” Adamopoulos, a junior, said.
WHEN Alliance also focuses on raising awareness about the lack of opportunities many women in developing countries have for higher education.
“We can’t just donate money and expect it to go somewhere, you know, that’s a very short term effect. In the long term, we want everyone to really understand the implications of everyday actions, but also how the money could impact the people we’re talking about,” Sasanuma said.
Blank said that raising awareness for AUW, as well as for the larger issue of unequal access to education, is important because an AUW education can often translate into real change. After graduating, many students return to their home countries, where they can make an impact.
“They know their communities better than anyone else, and AUW provides them with resources that they can use to go and make differences in their communities that no one else really can,” Blank said.
Sasanuma echoed Blank’s sentiment, stating that she believes AUW graduates are well-equipped to impact meaningful change in Asia.
“They know the issues best, so it’s best for them to work on fixing those issues with their education, rather than us, meaning people from first-world countries, to go in and act like we know how to solve their problems,” she said.
“WHEN is half fundraising for AUW, half advocacy, and we always want to make sure that they tie together because there are so many ways that they connect,” Sasanuma said.
Adamopolous provided insight into WHEN Alliance’s fundraising efforts.
“For the fundraising we do, we want to try to shed some light on some of the real experiences that these women have had. For instance, last semester we had this pop-up thrift sale called WHEN & Wear where we raised over $1,400, and we’re going to have another one this semester. Last year, all the proceeds went directly to a scholarship AUW was doing for garment factory workers, so it’s really relevant,” Adamopoulos said.
Earlier this semester, WHEN Alliance hosted an ethical fashion discussion with similar goals in mind. Adamopoulos explained the intention behind this event.
“We can make a big impact on campus with how people think about things like fast fashion, for example, but we can also make a big impact overseas, where there’s a huge demand for it. Being able to do both is really great,” Adamopoulos said.
Tufts’ WHEN Alliance is also focused on how to spread its message outside of Tufts and into the greater community of college students in the U.S.
Shoshana Goldman, a senior on the WHEN Alliance executive board, interned at the AUW Support Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., where she worked on developing methods for spreading the WHEN Alliance message.
“One of my main jobs as an intern there was to come up with some sort of plan for getting college students here in the U.S. involved with AUW’s cause. There are these support groups located around the world — Tokyo, Singapore. They do these really large fundraisers where they’re getting a lot of money,” Goldman said. “There’s a huge fundraiser, this big gala, in Tokyo every year, for instance. But the people involved with these efforts tend to be adults, and so the idea was how can we get college students involved with fundraising for AUW?”
Ultimately, Goldman and AUW Support Foundation Senior Program Associate Ingrid Lustig came up with a constitution other colleges could use to create their own versions of WHEN Alliance.
“The idea of the plan that we came up with is that anyone could read that document and have the instructions they would need to start their own club. And then it’s just a matter of finding other students who are interested,” Goldman said.
According to Goldman, the structure was implemented at Duke University and Brown University and can be replicated elsewhere. Even though each WHEN Alliance operates differently, the mission is the same. There is also potential for an internship exchange program, which Goldman learned about while interning at the AUW Support Foundation.
“The way it would work is students at Tufts or other schools affiliated with WHEN Alliance would have the opportunity to do an internship either at the Cambridge Support Foundation or in Bangladesh, where they’d [be] helping out in some capacity, like teaching English for instance. And then students at AUW would be able to come here, so it would be a cool exchange situation,” Goldman said.
These developments bode well for the future of WHEN Alliance. For now, though, Sasanuma, Blank, Adamopoulos and Goldman are proud of what they’ve created at Tufts and are excited about what the rest of this year will look like.
“When we invest in women’s education, we invest in international development,” Sasanuma said.
Going forward, WHEN Alliance will continue to host events on Tufts campus. The WHEN & Wear event will be on Dec. 8, where students can shop for used clothes while supporting a good cause. All proceeds from the sale will be going directly to the AUW’s Pathways for Promise program, which provides full scholarships at the university to Bangladeshi women who work in garment factories. In the meantime, they will be collecting donations at 106 Professors Row until Dec. 6.
WHEN Alliance will also host a screening of “The True Cost” (2015) on Nov. 22, which is an opportunity to learn more about the labor conditions of garment factory workers, and subsequently why it’s important to provide these women with higher education opportunities.