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Keynote speaker turns family struggle into positive experience

By Kyra Smith-Cullen in News

April 26, 2012


Photo courtesy of lhup.edu

Lock Haven students gathered on campus to hear Rafia Zakaria share her story of life as an immigrant and single mother seeking higher education at Wednesday’s Celebration of Scholarship.

Zakaria is an author, attorney and a human rights activist, focusing primarily on the rights of minorities and Muslim women.

Her speech focused on education’s important role in her life, even as a teenager; she was one of the few girls to take the SATs.

When Zakaria was 17, she was betrothed to a Pakistani man living in the U.S and part of the arrangement between their families was that Zakaria be allowed to attend college. The provision was brought on by experiences with Zakaria’s great-aunt, who left her abusive husband and struggled to find a place to live, because few relatives would take in a woman who rebelled against tradition and could make it difficult for them to arrange marriages for their children.

Her great-aunt eventually died in an institution after developing a mental illness and attempting to commit suicide several times.

“For my family, education was insurance, just in case my marriage didn’t work out,” Zakaria said. “But it became my life.”

After graduating college with a scholarship to attend law school and a desire to continue her education, Zakaria decided to try and satisfy both herself and her obligation to her husband and infant daughter; however, her relationship with her husband deteriorated until she took her two- year-old daughter to a women’s shelter and filed for divorce.

“I was completely alone,” Zakaria said. “All of my family lived in Pakistan, I had spent so much time trying to balance my life as a student and mother that I had no friends, and I didn’t have any money.”

Despite the odds, Zakaria still managed to finish law school. She’s returned to school to try and earn her Ph.D in political philosophy, while being the first Pakistani American woman to serve as the director of Amnesty International, which is an organization centered on promoting human rights.

“I really enjoyed the presentation” Kim Cueller, a freshman psychology major, said.

“I thought the speaker was very inspirational because she expressed how you could come from nothing and end up somewhere. A lot of people who are born into a situation where they can’t succeed, or don’t have the right opportunities feel like they can never get out of that,” Amelia Baptiste, a junior majoring in community health, said. “So [she gave] a sense that you can overcome where you started and end up somewhere greater.”


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