(Posted February 2, 2004)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Barred from attending college in her native country, Mahmooda Sonia Eqbal, a 23-year-old freshman from Kabul, Afghanistan, traveled almost half a world away to fulfill a desire to study peace and conflict at an American college.

Eqbal is one of seven Afghan women who left their homes to pursue study in the United States as part of The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a program administered by Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.

?When I complete my high school education in 1998, I did not attend college because the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan had disbanded the universities,? says Eqbal. ?It was my wish to get the best education and I was interested in peace and conflict studies so I came here to Juniata.?

Under the rules of the Taliban, education of women was forbidden and punishable by beatings. Upon the liberation of the country, young women returned to schools in Afghan cities. However, decades of war have devastated local school systems. In 2002, Paula Nirschel, wife of Roger Williams University President Roy Nirschel, established the initiative by offering a four-year scholarship to an Afghan student. Other colleges, including Juniata, joined the initiative.

Candidates for the program are screened by the U.S. State Department, the president of Kabul University and other Afghan leaders. Eqbal is one of a group of Afghan students who were placed at various U.S. colleges and universities. The students return home each summer, in order to help in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

?I was kind of nervous coming here, but I talked to students who had been in the program last year and looked at Juniata?s Web site and so when I came to Huntingdon it already felt like it was my campus,? Eqbal says.

Eqbal already has immersed herself into many different classes and activities. She is taking a full schedule of courses, working with the cultural education program Language In Motion and joined PAXO, the student club for students in the peace and conflict studies program.

In addition, she and several other students have taken the initiative to form the Muslim Students Association. ?I really like to talk about Afghanistan and Islam because there is definitely a lack of information about our country,? she says. ?But I am also very interested in the culture here?the food, the students?everything.?

Eqbal, who worked for UNICEF before coming to Juniata and is the only daughter of an official with Afghanistan?s Foreign Ministry, is looking forward to playing a role in rebuilding her country. ?I will go back every summer, but I hope to work for Afghanistan in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,? she says.

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.