At only 22, Noorjahan Akbar is already getting recognized for her work.
A junior sociology major at Dickinson College, she’s received some national attention from Forbes magazine, USA Today and Fox News, and she was most recently named the grand-prize winner on Glamour magazine’s annual list of “Top 10 College Women” for her work supporting equal rights in her home country of Afghanistan.
A native of Kabul, Akbar came to Dickinson in 2010 with the help of Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF), founded by Dickinson alumnus Leo Motiuk ’66.
Established in 2008 to help young Afghan women seeking college education in the United States, the fund matches promising applicants with participating educational institutions, in an effort to offer Afghanistan long-lasting impact through educated women’s contributions to their country’s growth and development. The program also aims to bridge mutual understanding and respect between the two nations.
Dickinson College President Bill Durden insisted Monday in a news conference that Akbar has not only encompassed the fund’s values, but also those of Dickinson founder, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Through her dedication to “Dickinson Dimensions,” which include developing global sensibility, engaging the world, seeking connections, practicing civility and striving for accountability, Durden said Akbar has done what the founders of Dickinson intended for its students.
“Noorjahan is modest but her voice and mission are mighty,” Durden said.
Despite studying on the other side of the globe from Afghanistan, in April 2011, Akbar managed to co-found Young Women for Change (YWC), an independent nonprofit organization committed to empowering Afghan women and improving their lives through social and economical participation, political empowerment, awareness and advocacy.
In July 2011, while home in Kabul for summer vacation, Akbar led members of the nonprofit on the first ever march against street harassment in Afghanistan.
In a November column Akbar published in a blog from New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, she said of the protest: “[W]hen I saw the ability and the motivation to form a grassroots feminist movement in Afghanistan, it inspired me so much that I knew I would never be able to abandon it.”
Since its establishment, YWC has grown to nonprofit status and now includes a male advocacy group, monthly lectures on issues surrounding women and gender studies, and has helped to build libraries in Kabul and Helmand.
In an interview with Glamour, Akbar said that since her childhood, she has cared about moving Afghanistan toward a more fair future.
“I could imagine what women looked like in fair societies,” she said. “And I wanted that for my country.”
When Motiuk spoke of Akbar’s many successes Monday, he referred to her life as one where knowledge has fostered love and freedom.
In 2012, Akbar was invited to speak at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s third annual Women in the World Summit, alongside other acclaimed women, including the likes of Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and Angelina Jolie. Later that year, she was featured in Forbes Magazine “Most Powerful Women in the World” issue, which profiled 100 women from across the globe for accomplishments in business, entrepreneurship, technology, public policy, sports and media.
She is also responsible for the opening of Afghanistan’s first-ever women’s only cyber café, and has worked translating short stories for Afghan children as well as delivering books and teaching creative writing in Afghan orphanages.
Akbar is very grateful for all of the opportunities Dickinson has afforded her and said that what she has most enjoyed about her time on campus are the relations she formed with administrators, faculty, staff and students that have led to her many successes.
“[These relationships] give me the power and courage to continue what I’m doing despite the many risks,” she said. “I feel very empowered and honored and humbled.”
A place on Glamour’s list started out with an online application from college juniors, which was whittled down via voting to 10 women. Akbar eventually came out as the grand-prize winner.
The Glamour award included a trip to New York City, introductions to top professionals in a variety of fields, national recognition in the magazine, and a gift bag from L’Oréal Paris.
Akbar also received a check for $20,000, which she said she plans to split between the cost of her education and donations to multiple organizations in Afghanistan that are in need of computers and Internet access.
The awards ceremony was at Barnard College in New York on April 4, and was held in conjunction with a panel discussion called “How to Build Your Personal Brand and Land Your Dream Job.” Hosted by Glamour’s editor-in-chief Cinidi Leive and moderated by MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, the panel included Anna Chlumsky of HBO’s “Veep,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” Correspondent Jessica Williams, star of “Covert Affairs” Piper Perabo, Chief Digital Officer for the City of New York Rachel Sterne Haot, and Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp.
Akbar is also featured in May’s issue of Glamour, which is on newsstands today and is expected to reach more than 17 million readers.
Despite her list of accomplishments, Akbar still has a full academic year left at Dickinson. But following her graduation in May 2014, she already has plans to start Afghanistan’s first women’s newspaper.
Akbar will return to Kabul on May 12. Though her summer plans are not set in stone, she is looking into opportunities working on rural female empowerment with farmers in Afghanistan.