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Yousafzai proves education is key

On December 2, 2013

My recurring theme on this page each week is education. I cannot stress the importance of education in any society, and, as the president of the Higher Education Defense Group, I regularly give great emphasis to the importance of defending and strengthening our system for fair and accessible opportunities for college.

In some places, that is not quite the case. For some groups of people, that is not quite the case. Try Pakistan, one of the many regions continuously plagued by the Taliban, where about half of the population does not have access to education. That half: women.

Forget the discussion about paying for education in the economically challenged area of the world or even the social stigma that continue to hinder gender equality there. What would you think if I told you that when a 15-year-old girl’s name was called out on a school bus, she was shot in the head for wanting girls to get an education? More importantly, what would you think if I told you that she survived and, instead of living in fear, is now has louder voice than ever as an advocate for gender-equal access to education?
This is the reality for many girls in the Middle East, and that girl exists. Her name is Malala Yousafzai, and, as 2013 approaches a close, I recognize her as a hero of mine. She is my person of the year.

Her journey started when she was 11, writing—under a pseudonym—a blog for BBC News detailing her life under the shade of the Taliban’s violent thumb and her advocacy for giving girls access to an education. The next year, “The New York Times” created a documentary about her fascinating life and focusing on her strong advocacy, fascinating because of the depth of her views given her young age. Unafraid of terroristic threats made against her and her father, from whom she developed her initial ideals on education activism, she continued to speak out, giving remarks at events and participating in news interviews.

The Taliban’s threats did not work, and they did not like it.
“We had no intentions to kill her but were forced when she would not stop,” said a spokesman of the organization.

Yousafzai had not excluded the possibility she might one day be killed for her activism. In fact, she had envisioned such an attack: “I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”

How many people have the courage of their convictions to say they will look death in the face and call it a liar? Not only did she say it, she is carrying it out today.

Since she recovered, leaders around the world have recognized Yousafzai for her emphatic advocacy, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Interview requests, special events in her name and awards to her have come abound to her, but the bread and butter that led to all the attention is still being fully carried out.
She continues to speak around the world, including meeting with world leaders and telling them to their face the injustice she and those like her have suffered. The Taliban sought to end her voice, but they have magnified it enormously.

As HEDG president, I am in the business of keeping college degrees accessible for West Virginians; my challenge is the West Virginia Legislature. Yousafzai’s challenge is a social system of inequality for access to the most basic education, bolstered by killings of those who challenge it. She is a hero of mine. Now at 16, her work has just begun, and I cannot wait to see where she goes from here. Considering all the people that have made headlines in 2013, she deserves distinction. She is my person of the year.

Tommy D. G. Ferrell can be contacted at

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