Shaheen Mistri '88 and Megan Mukuria '95 are daily putting into action GA's motto, Toward the Building of Character. Ms. Mistri is the founder and CEO of Teach for India, which strives to end educational inequity in India. Mrs. Mukuria is the founder and CEO of ZanaAfrica, a Kenyan social enterprise that leverages sanitary pads and health education to help keep girls in school.
Serendipitously, both women were in town this month and made time to share their stories at a joint Middle School assembly. Ms. Mistri and Mrs. Mukuria have dedicated their lives to helping others, and have seemingly followed parallel paths separated only by geography. While still in college, both women experienced moments of epiphany that changed the courses of their lives. Ms. Mistri while in India after her freshman year at Tufts, and Mrs. Mukuria during a service trip to Kenya while at Harvard, faced with the extreme poverty of the children they had encountered, realized that all that separated them from these children was luck. It was the circumstances of their birth that determined whether they would have an education, a roof over their heads, and food on the table. Having identified education at the means to breaking the cycle of poverty for an individual, a community, and a country, both alumnae set out make a difference.
Ms. Mistri, never ended up going back to the U.S. for her sophomore year of college. Instead she founded Akanksha, an organization with the goal of helping children from low-income families receive a high-quality education. What started in 1990 with 15 students, one room, and a shoe-string budget, today serves 6,500 children in Mumbai and Pune. After 17 years with Akanksha, Ms. Mistri sought to extend her reach and established Teach for India which directly impacts ~40,000 children across seven regions of India. For the girls in the audience hearing her story, they were astounded when she explained that in "48% of Indian children who won't make it to 5th grade in India," she said. She went on to explain that 76% won't graduate from high school, and that those that do, are often in classes of 75 to 100 students." Mistri's now been working in education long enough have seen for herself the ripple effect that her work is having in India. she told the story of a young girl, Seema, who came to Akanksha years ago as a shy and under confident student who had never had a family member graduate from high school. With the help of caring teachers at Akanksha, Seema came out of her shell, not only graduating from high school, but also going on to college and later gaining admission to a selective MBA program. Rather than pursuing the MBA, however, Seema joined the Teach for India program as a fellow. She eventually became the principal of a school with 500 students, and today she is working with the State of Maharashtra to set up 100 model schools in the state's most impoverished districts. "This story," said Ms. Mistri, "truly brings all my work together . . . That's what's possible with opportunity."
Upon graduation from Harvard, Mukuria was drawn back to Kenya and knew that she wanted her "life to be about unlocking the most possible opportunity for the most girls." And for the past 18 years she has dedicated herself to this goal through ZanaAfrica. Mukuria began her presentation by putting a sanitary pad on the podium, explaining that her work in Kenya is about breaking menstrual health taboos, and giving girls affordable access to sanitary pads so they can attend school without disruption. Mukuria noted that, in East Africa, sanitary pads are out of reach for 65% of girls, causing them to not only miss 6 weeks of school each year, but to drop out of school all together at twice the rate of boys. ZanaAfrica has taken a multi-pronged approach addressing this problem but offering: their own line of discounted sanitary pads produced with their own patented process; electronically accessible information about women's health; and a full health education curriculum including a series of magazines that address menstrual health. Today, Ms. Mukuria's organization is serving 15,000 girls through their magazine and curriculum, and many more with their sanitary pads.
"After listening to these two women speak, I have realized how grateful and appreciative I should be for the education that I get day to day," said Jordan '22, "Every child, no matter where they live, deserves to learn and should be given the opportunity to help change our world for the better."
Of course, both alumnae made it clear that every girl in the audience can and should have a part in helping others. "Kids are not the future—you can be a changemaker today," said Ms. Mistri. And Mrs. Mukuria reminded the girls, "Each of you have a purpose on this planet, and that's to make this world a better place in whatever way you can."