Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, and for the first-time visitor, the most immediate and striking impression of its capital city is often made by the traffic, Associate Professor of Political Science Jeremy Elkins told an audience in Bryn Mawr’s Campus Center on Wednesday, Feb. 23.
Elkins was explaining the presence of two screens at a report given by Bryn Mawr students and faculty members who accompanied President Jane McAuliffe on a trip to Bangladesh in late January: one screen for photographs taken at sites the delegation visited, and one for a video loop of the bewilderingly fast-paced jumble of vehicles that thronged the streets, a nearly constant backdrop to the group’s visit.
McAuliffe opened the presentation with a brief outline of the delegation’s goals for its participation in activities hosted by the five-year-old Asian University for Women in Chittagong. Students Madelyn Houser ’11, Huipu Li ’13, and Jomaira Salas ’13; sociologist Nathan Wright; anthropologist Amanda Weidman; and Elkins took part in groundbreaking ceremonies for the institution’s new permanent campus before returning to the capital of Dhaka to join McAuliffe, who spoke at an international conference hosted by AUW.
“There is an increasing awareness among Seven Sisters schools and other U.S. women’s colleges of women’s colleges around the world,” McAuliffe said, “and it’s a delight to hear about new ones.”
AUW, she said, combines a liberal-arts model with some preprofessional training and aims to be “a place where women from South and Southeast Asia can be educated together to be the next generation of leaders.”
The Bryn Mawr delegation, said McAuliffe, had two missions: to make a strong gesture of support for the new institution and to “begin to talk about how we might create a sustained relationship” between the two schools.
Elkins, after explaining the multimedia approach, gave the floor to the students, who divided the presentation into three parts, the first focusing on their experience in and around Dhaka, the second focusing on the conference, and the third concentrating on AUW itself.
Houser began with descriptions of Dhaka. Like Elkins, she was struck by the city’s traffic, which she described as the most chaotic she had ever seen.
“I’m a math major, so I look for patterns,” she said, “but I couldn’t find any patterns in the traffic.”
She described motorized rickshaws and “buses that had been in so many accidents they looked like they were made of duct tape” traveling cheek-by-jowl with sleek luxury cars. This, she noted, illustrated an aspect of Bangladesh that the students found somewhat startling: frequent juxtapositions of extreme poverty with great affluence.
Houser continued with slides of some of the tourist attractions of Dhaka, seen through a mist that she belatedly realized, after it failed to dissipate as she expected, was not fog but smog.
For Houser, a double major in mathematics and economics, a highlight of the trip was a visit to the rural countryside, where they met Nobel Prize-winning economist Mohammed Yunus and a group of women who had started small businesses with microloans provided by Yunus’ groundbreaking Grameen Bank.
The group also visited the Bangladesh National Assembly building, which felt oddly familiar to them: it was designed by Louis Kahn, the architect responsible for Bryn Mawr’s Erdman Hall.
Salas took the microphone next to discuss “Imagining Another Future for Asia: Ideas and Pathways for Change,” the international conference the group attended in Dhaka.
Seeing the Asian perspective on global issues radically changed her understanding of them, Salas said. As an example, she offered the issue of global climate change.
“I never really considered myself an environmentalist until I went to this conference,” she said. Conferees discussed the likelihood that large portions of Bangladesh would simply disappear under rising sea levels.
“My favorite part,” she said, “was a presentation by AUW students from Sri Lanka about a summer project they did together.”
The group of Sri Lankan students included both Sinhalese and Tamil students – members of the two ethnic groups on opposing sides of the country’s decades-long civil war. AUW had offered conflict-resolution services to the two groups after the Sri Lankan military declared victory over the Tamil separatist army in 2009.
The students collaboratively wrote a play in which the Sinhalese students played the roles of Tamils and the Tamil students played the roles of the Sinhalese. They found the role play so effective in helping the groups understand each other that they took it home with them, touring the country over the summer with a similar program for groups in Sri Lanka.
“It was so exciting and impressive to me that these students were doing peacemaking activities,” Salas said. It made me want to look at ways that we can partner with students at AUW.”
Li took the floor to give the crowd a sketch of AUW, which she described as “like a Utopia in Bangladesh.”
The Bryn Mawr delegation attended groundbreaking ceremonies for a new campus designed by architect Moshe Safdie, but the current campus, Li said, is “very compact – just four buildings.”
The academic program at AUW, Li said, is “a unique model – and very brave.”
McAuliffe had explained earlier that because AUW enrolls students with little preparation in English and several other subjects required for the curriculum, the school offers a “bridge program” with the aim of increasing access for underserved populations.
Li, a native of China, said that she had talked to some of her compatriots in the bridge program and was amazed by their command of English.
She and her fellow delegates, Li said, were also deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of the AUW students and their confidence about speaking up in class and engaging in dialog with each other in a class on political philosophy.
The spirit of cooperation and common endeavor was especially impressive, Li noted, in view of the diversity of AUW’s student population: 60 percent of its students come from 11 countries outside of Bangladesh, including a number of sites of longstanding conflict.
Faculty members Nathan Wright and Amanda Weidman followed the student presentations. Both, like Li, were struck by the enthusiasm of the AUW students and their diversity.
The experience of being in a class devoted to contentious political issues alongside students whose world picture differs so significantly from one’s own, Wright said, would be invaluable. He proposed that Bryn Mawr consider AUW as a study-abroad site.
Another possibility for collaboration, he said, was the short-term projects AUW students typically do during the summer months (the Sri Lankan students’ peacemaking program is an example).
“If our students spent some time there,” Wright said, “perhaps a learning exchange, on the model of the Teaching and Learning Initiative’s staff-student partnerships, would be productive.”
Wright also saw potential for exchanges of faculty between the two institutions.
Weidman closed the presentation, recounting an experience she had at the conference, when a group of students from Afghanistan approached her with a question.
“I could see them talking with each other trying to work out how to phrase this question,” Weidman said.
“The question they asked was a very profound one,” Weidman said. “It was about the difference between talking to someone who is actually involved in a conflict, and how that differs from explaining the conflict to someone outside the conflict. To me that summed up the stakes involved for them, and the sort of uses that they plan to make of the education they are getting there.”