This commencement season, I'm profiling a few extraordinary students who graduated from New York City's Hunter College. Hunter began almost 150 years ago as a teaching college for women. It was already ahead of its time, admitting African American and Jewish students. (And it admits men now, too).
Today's grads show us the young people now ahead of our own time, like Safia Mahjebin.
Safia came to Brooklyn from Bangladesh when she was three and grew up in a conservative Bengali community. All her life, her parents talked about marrying her off, but her independent spirit was already evident at age 10 when she would skip school just to explore the city by subway.
By the time she was 16, her parents were encouraging her to get married. Once she started college, commuting from home, they escalated from encouraging to abusing her for being a "bad daughter" and not accepting a husband. Life at home became unbearable, so Safia started staying at Hunter till 2 or 3 in the morning. The cleaning crew took note, and when the dean of students learned Safia was too terrified to go home, the school found her a dorm room.
But it still wasn't easy. Cut off from her family, Safia was working three jobs and attending school full time. The school stepped in again and, learning of her passion for social justice, helped arrange an internship for her at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit working to end gender violence. It was only there that Safia learned there were other people trying to fight exactly what she had escaped — the unwilling marriage of young girls.
Shockingly, in New York state, people as young as 14 could still get legally married. "Fourteen?" thought Safia. That almost certainly meant those kids' parents were forcing them.
Safia started giving speeches about the reality of forced marriage. These went viral on YouTube. She campaigned in the state capital, Albany. And now you can see her in the back of photos with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo where, thanks in great part to Safia's campaigning, he is signing a bill raising New York's minimum age of marriage to 17.
Safia's incredible activism along with her academic achievements earned her a prestigious Truman Scholarship — an award of $30,000 for graduate studies given to only 59 scholar-activists in the U.S. in 2018. The prize money will help Safia as she goes on to get a joint law degree and Ph.D. in Islamic studies, which she will use to make sure no other girls — or boys — are ever forced to marry against their will.
But wait! There's more! It's a second happily-ever-after ending. During this tumultuous time, Safia found real love and did get married — to a man of her choice.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: StockSnap at Pixabay