Farzanah Darwish – On the IEDP, UNESCO Fellowship, and Afghanistan

I had heard so much about Farzanah even before I set foot on campus. My cohort members, who had already met her in August, only had wonderful things to say about her. When I did get to know her from our classes together, group assignments, exploring Philly, and our shared love for Bollywood, I knew I had to share glimpses of her story with you.

Farzanah Darwish is a first generation Master’s student and a first-year IEDPer, from Afghanistan. One of nine siblings, she grew up in Kabul, where she also did her undergraduate studies in Mathematics. She then got her Master’s degree in Mathematics in India and pursued her PhD in Mathematics for a year and a half before shifting focus to international education development. “Math is my first love,” she said when I interviewed her for this blog. “Clearly,” I muttered. So how did she end up in the IEDP?

I wanted to be a lecturer in a university Afghanistan, my home. So, it was natural for me to pursue a doctoral degree in the field. In August 2021 though, after the Taliban swept back into power, everything changed for me. My family had to leave the country and relocate to the US. But for me, the goal is still the same – to give back to Afghanistan. I felt that being an expert in one subject would not be enough. I wanted to gain the tools and skills to do more, especially at the intersection of education and development, and that is what brought me to the IEDP.

Farzana at Penn GSE

She has always been an educator at heart. As an undergraduate student, she spent half her day on campus and the other teaching children in government schools in Kabul. No guesses on which subject! During her Master’s program, Farzanah also taught in private schools. She strongly believes in the power education holds in not only shaping the mindsets of children but also the future of her country.

Farzanah applied to multiple universities. She remembered thinking she might not get accepted into the University of Pennsylvania but applied anyway. During this process, she received an email to apply for the Penn GSE-UNESCO Fellowship. This Fellowship, under the auspices of the IEDP, is designed to support promising professionals devoted to international education in the developing world. It covers all the Penn tuition fees associated with the program.

I just filled out the application for the Fellowship, knowing I may not get it. When I received it, I literally cried! I got accepted to multiple universities, but I knew I could not go because of the financial constraints my family and I were tied to as refugees in this country. The Penn GSE-UNESCO Fellowship changed that for me and brought me here.

Farzana with her cohort and the
Farzanah in an IEDP event with the UNESCO Assistant Director-General of Education, Ms. Stefania Giannini

She is also a Resident Advisor (RA) to undergraduate students at Penn. It is a part-time on-campus opportunity where RAs strive to create a positive environment conducive to academic and personal growth for students living on campus. Farzanah understands the challenges of navigating a new life in a new country and in a new environment as an international student and wants to ensure it is wholesome for the students under her wing. Furthermore, she is further supported by the campus housing this position provides her with.

The RAship is highly selective, and again, she would say, “I just applied and didn’t know if I would get it, but I got it!”. Her humility disguises her sharp intellect, incredible resilience, and earnest passion for making a difference.

While discussing what her experience in the IEDP has been so far, she spoke about how the courses and style of learning and teaching were very different from those she had experienced previously. She highlighted how much ownership is given to students to design their own experiences, in contrast to the highly teacher-dependent classrooms she was part of earlier.

The IEDP has courses that prepare me to apply what I learn. I selected courses that teach me about non-profit management, fundraising, monitoring and evaluation, and more so that I can lead or contribute to NGOs well. I aim to work for organizations that support Afghan refugees and people in Afghanistan, especially women and children who are looked over and denied their rights.

She also shared how learning happens outside of the classroom too – from her cohort who come from all around the world and from living in Philly too! “Of course, there are challenging times, and I struggle sometimes, but tough times make a diamond. I also know that this is all part of the learning process!”

Fisher Fine Arts Library
Farzanah’s Favourite Place On-Campus – Penn’s Fisher Fine Arts Library

While my fingers slowly turn to ice-popsicles, she mentions how much she loves winters here as it reminds her of her country. Farzanah keeps Afghanistan alive through her conversations, courses, music, and even her wardrobe! However, she finds it unsettling how easily forgotten Afghanistan is becoming, despite the crisis. With a firm resolve and a kind heart, she continues to advocate for excellent education to be accessible to everyone in her country. On that note, I will leave you with her favorite quote, which I am sure you can Google translate!

دست های دل مان پر هما سازیم
هر چه مخروبه است باز آشیانه کنیم
شاید امروز دست ما به افق ها نرسد
باید از پنجره آن دور را نشانه کنیم

Aishwarya Shetty

2 thoughts on “Farzanah Darwish – On the IEDP, UNESCO Fellowship, and Afghanistan

  1. Her kind heart and pure spirit and her tireless and tireless efforts made her very special.The particles of understanding and the depth of her words and understanding are excellent.
    When we are with her, especially when we read poems, tell stories and sing songs, I don’t feel tired. She is an unique sister.


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