by Jill W. Smith
In 1996, a young woman named Myriam arrived in New York City from Uruguay. She came from an underprivileged family, and she did what many immigrants do: she found a job. For 15 years she worked as a housekeeper while dreaming of more challenging work that would also support a future family. Myriam was eligible for government and school-based aid, but she still could not afford the full-time tuition, fees, books and other costs of rising tuition even at a public college.
Fortunately, she applied to a competitive program at the City University of New York and earned a scholarship to study Radiologic Technology. If you’ve heard any of President Obama’s speeches during his education bus tour through the Northeast this month, you know that Myriam is an exception – distinguished from countless Americans shut out of higher education because they cannot pay for it. Many of them will be young women, a demographic that is still playing catch-up in education around the globe.
This week as we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, a commemoration of women achieving the right to vote, we should take a moment to reflect on how far women’s education has come, and yet how much work remains to be done. My organization, the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW), which provided Myriam with her scholarship, began its work in 1880. At the same time that Susan B. Anthony and her contemporaries were marching for the vote, Minnie Louis, our founder, was securing food and clothing for immigrant Jewish girls, as well as teaching them, in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Her vision of education as the pathway to opportunity, equality and social mobility is at the core of JFEW’s work today, providing women of all races and religions with the same gift of education provided to Myriam. Since 1960, we have granted nearly $75 million to over 10,000 women to pursue higher education.
What all these women had in common was economic need, drive, and motivation. Many were immigrants and first generation college students without role models or networks to encourage them to continue with their education. They attended school full-time and maintained high GPAs while living with extreme economic hardship, and illness, while sometimes also caring for children, parents or younger siblings.
The achievements of these young women are a testament to the numerous benefits that come from educating women and girls – such as increased self-esteem, the ability to make better health decisions and the opportunity to participate as equals in the workforce. In the U.S., women’s access to education has evolved: today 60 percent of all bachelor’s degree holders in the country are female, and we are charged with maintaining this momentum.
Yet distressingly, across the globe, a distinct gender gap still exists at all levels of education from primary school through college. The World Economic Forum has been tracking this gender gap since 2006 and found that the narrower the gap, the more economically competitive the country. The United Nations has recognized this disparity and has made closing the gap one of the Millennium Development Goals. Despite discussion at the highest levels, young women still struggle in countries around the world – including the U.S. – for access to education.
The most important thing we can do to help close this gap is to provide greater access to higher education for young women – everywhere. Honoring a young woman for achievement in academics while providing the means necessary to expand her intellectual horizons create a deep sense of pride, and boosts her self-confidence. Research has shown that the implicit message in a scholarship award – showing that someone cares about your potential and ability to succeed – has increased recipients’ accountability, raised academic achievement and resulted in a greater likelihood of attainment of a college degree.
The JFEW model – a private sector, philanthropic approach that has produced a vast network of alumnae who have achieved professional success as educators, scientists, doctors and nurses, artists, writers, clergy and more – is a proven strategy that can be replicated anywhere.
I have chosen this moment, as we celebrate a milestone in female equality, to support efforts in our country to make college more affordable. I’m calling on philanthropies to dedicate new or increased funding to colleges and universities here and around the world for the endowment of scholarships for young women. This is an extensive, untapped intellectual resource with the potential to produce significant benefits for all of society – more scientists, mathematicians, writers, explorers and thinkers to help solve some of the great problems of our time.
We will continue to do our part at JFEW to make higher education a reality for as many women as possible. While the Jewish value of “tikkum olam” or “repairing the world” drives our mission, I believe that all can embrace JFEW’s vision for women to aspire, learn and achieve – breaking down educational barriers, closing the gap and unlocking the path to prosperity for young women and their communities around the world.
Jill W. Smith is President of the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women.
cross-posted at HuffPost Social Entrepreneurship