President and Co-Founder of First Private Boarding School for Girls in Afghanistan Gives Keynote Address
On Friday, October 14, Dr. Meera Viswanathan was honored at an investiture ceremony marking the beginning of her service as the head of The Ethel Walker School. Viswanathan, most recently an associate professor of comparative literature and East Asian Studies at Brown University, was appointed after a national search.
The ceremony began with a series of special well wishes from friends, family, colleagues, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as read by students and Dean of Students Lauren Raia. Shabana Basij-Rasikh, president and co-founder of The School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), presented the keynote address. SOLA, an Afghan-led private boarding school for Afghan girls, is the first school of its kind in Afghanistan.
Shabana spoke about her life journey and what led her to found SOLA. Growing up in Taliban-controlled Kabul where education for girls was illegal, Shabana attended school secretly, dressed as a boy and in constant fear of her life. Shabana came to the United States in 2005 for high school through the State Department's Youth Exchange Studies program, and was quickly aware of her privilege as well as how much was taken for granted in the US. Shabana encouraged Walker's students to acknowledge their own privilege and act upon it in recognition of the 62 million girls around the world waiting for the opportunity to be educated.
"Girls, why are you here? What is the purpose of your education?" she asked. "There is no one better in this world who will help you answer those questions than Meera. I think you all have done something amazing as a community to deserve the leadership of Meera, and I hope that together ... you learn and think very seriously about every single one of our responsibilities, individually and collectively, towards our world."
In her inaugural address to the community, Viswanathan, also known as Ms. Vis to the students, spoke about her upbringing as an immigrant from India living in Los Angeles and the sacrifices of her family, particularly her mother, who instilled in her the value of education. "Education is everything; it is the 'leading forth' into life," Meera said. "And at a school like Walker's, it is not only education within the classroom. It is education everywhere we go, with every person we meet. We educate one another. This must be our sole purpose in being here."
Viswanathan also related her role at Walker's to that of a gnomon, the projecting piece on a sundial, the School symbol. "My function in this school is as the gnomon - and what I want to do is to be able to shine the light on our wonderful faculty and staff, and especially our beloved students. It is they who are making strides, it is they who will bring out that world that we will all be glad that we are living in."
Viswanathan, who is fluent in seven languages including French, German, Latin, Classical Greek, Old English and Old Norse, received several National Endowment for the Humanities grants and awards while at Brown. She and her husband, Dr. Eric Widmer, former head of school at Deerfield Academy, were asked by King Abdullah II of Jordan to establish the Middle East's first co-educational college preparatory boarding school with financial aid. The school opened in 2007. Viswanathan served as the school's principal architect of the curriculum and dean of faculty. King Abdullah II personally awarded Viswanathan the King Hussein Medal, Jordan's highest honor, for her endeavors. Viswanathan began her tenure as head of The Ethel Walker School on July 1, 2016.