My Meeting With Malala
If I could go back in time and tell myself that I would be starting my Master of Public Health (MPH) degree at Columbia University in the fall of 2017, I would be speechless. If I could also tell my younger self that I’d get the chance to meet and learn from Nobel Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai the night before my first day of classes, I don’t think I would believe it.
In December of 2008, the Taliban began a crusade against girls' education, forbidding all girls from attending school, including those in Malala’s beloved Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan. With the support of her father, 11-year-old Malala began anonymously blogging for the BBC, and later spoke out publicly for girls’ education. When she was 15, Malala was shot by the Taliban terrorist group, but survived a bullet to her head and underwent months of rehabilitation in Birmingham, U.K., where her family resides today.
My admiration for Malala began in 2014 after I read her widely acclaimed book, I Am Malala, in which she describes how the Taliban gained power and momentum. In her book, Malala recounts how citizens’ rights and freedoms became controlled and limited under the Taliban, with fear and passivity spreading like wildfire. Everyone suffered from the Taliban’s terror, but those most devastatingly affected were women and girls.
Despite what Malala experienced, her faith, love of Pakistan, and fight for girls’ education never faltered. Today, her accomplishments are nothing short of astounding. She has traveled the globe, challenged world leaders, and she’s already made an enormous impact on girls’ lives. At the age of 17, she became the youngest Noble Peace Prize winner, and recently, at 20, she was accepted to study at Oxford University. Yet whenever Malala is praised for her achievements, she is quick to clarify that her ultimate achievement has not yet been reached—to one day live in a world where, “every girl can learn and lead without fear,” as the Malala Fund puts it. She pledges to continue her advocacy until every child is guaranteed 12 years of safe, affordable, and quality education.
Malala takes steps towards her goal every day and on Labor Day 2017, she stopped in Greencastle, Indiana, to speak to more than 5,000 students, faculty, and community members at DePauw University. As a 2016 alumna, I was invited to join a Q&A session with Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, prior to her speech. It was an honor listening to her share her thoughts on current events and on the importance of education, especially at DePauw University, where I found my own voice. Towards the end of the conversation, her father reiterated that, “education is not Western or Eastern, it’s human,” and then Malala urged us, “to make sure, at least, we are not the bad ones.” I thought about these words as I headed back to New York City the next morning to begin my first day of classes at Mailman, flipping through my notes in the journal I received during orientation with the phrase “Health is a Human Right” printed on the inside cover. I was eager to begin my degree and thankful to be living and learning among the “good ones” here.
Malala's activism for girls’ education, and the importance it has for women's health and overall global prosperity, is very close to my heart. As a member of the Sociomedical Sciences department, I’m pursuing a certificate in health promotion and research, but my underlying interest has always been in women and children's health. Malala’s advocacy helps illustrate that those who do not prioritize girls’ education do not prioritize women’s lives. Education is one of the most powerful tools for improving health outcomes, yet today 130 million girls are out of school. When Malala began her advocacy she said, “I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.”
I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity I had to meet Malala, and even more grateful for the opportunity I have now to study public health. I look forward to the next two years at Mailman, and to making an impact in the lives of women and girls because when women move forward, we all move forward. #YesAllGirls
Katie Stack is a first-year MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences. In 2016, she graduated from DePauw University where she majored in Communication and minored in Sociology.
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