Triggering Passion Through Personal Connection

How can we trigger passion for social justice in young people? Nothing touches people like personal connection. That's why last year Americans for UNFPA started the Student Award for the Health and Dignity of Women.

For many of us who seek solutions to social problems, one question comes up often: how did you get involved in this work? The question really means, what was it that instilled such passion in you that you determined to make it your life's mission? For many of us, it was something in our family and background that led us to on a journey to improve the world as we see it. From others, you often hear, "I read this great book…" or "I met this amazing woman…"

Once firmly established in careers that intertwine our passion and vision of life, we often spend time wondering, how do we trigger this same passion in young people, specifically college students? Frankly, they're a tough nut to crack. They're busy with their classes but also with the headiness of life's possibilities. And, often to their parent's dismay, they're often rather preoccupied with their new independence. Finally, with every book ever published and nine million blogs on their desks, these young adults can't be so easily reached through old fashioned channels like student newspapers and radio stations.

But we know that nothing touches people like personal connection. So, last year we began a contest, the Student Award for the Health and Dignity of Women. The winner goes with us to visit UNFPA-funded programs abroad and, in return, becomes a young ambassador for UNFPA on her campus and in her community. It's our hope that by taking a young American overseas, we will create a lifelong advocate for global women's health in this country.

Through this process, I've been delighted (and more than a little surprised) to learn how much many young people already know and care about women around the world. They seem to really see themselves as part of a global community. We received submissions from students all over the country. Their majors ranged from journalism to women's studies to public health. Their knowledge about social issues and their passion to address them is inspiring.

I'm delighted to announce that this year's winner is Fatima Hassan, a junior at Stanford University studying human biology. Fatima was chosen by an independent jury based on her demonstrated interest in a career dedicated to the health of women globally. A very accomplished young woman, Fatima is already involved with a Stanford-based medical project to combat fistula in Eritrea. She is President of the university's Muslim Student Awareness Network and is involved with the Women's Community Center on campus.

Academically, Fatima hopes to organize community efforts to promote alternative traditional ceremonies to replace female genital cutting, a common rite of passage, and plans to conduct research on the access of fistula patients to treatment facilities.

In her essays Fatima wrote: "Women's health is my calling…Though I have done years of personal research, books and classes don't compare to the dimensions of learning firsthandWhen the President suspends funding to the principal international organization seeking universal women's health and rights, the image of the U.S. as a champion of human rights and justice is severely compromised and abrogated…Supporting UNFPA is the realization that yes, although that distant world is rife with injustices and inequities, we can do something just by internalizing their struggles…"

Fatima will join us on a trip to Uganda and Rwanda in August to meet the real women who change their communities – and the world – a little at a time. The trip includes, among other things, visits to hospital maternity clinics, HIV prevention programs and projects that reach out to sex workers.

We are delighted to contribute to Fatima's future success and to cultivate a generation of young American adults who will lead our nation toward a long-term dialogue with the world.