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How Have You Used Your Education to Help Others?

30 June 2011

Successful women in America answer the question “How have you used your education to help others?”


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ALT: Ursula Burns (Courtesy of Xerox Corporation)

Ursula Burns

My mother would always remind me: “Where you are is not who you are.” I grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York City. My mother saw education as the way up and out for her children. It didn’t take long for me to see the wisdom in her beliefs. Bucking the trends back then for women to pursue nursing and teaching careers, I chose mechanical engineering. I was charting my own path up and out. Xerox soon opened its doors to me as an engineering intern, and I’ve never looked back. That’s also when I started paying it forward by advocating for more young women to pursue careers in math and science. Through programs such as President Obama’s Change the Equation initiative I’m helping women and minorities appreciate the life-changing benefits of shaping our world through engineering and innovation. Because who you are will always be more powerful than where you are. Turns out my mother was right.

Ursula Burns is the chairman and chief executive of Xerox Corporation. With engineering degrees from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University and Columbia University, Burns also helps to lead President Obama’s national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).


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EMBED: © Blue Legacy

ALT: Alexandra Cousteau (© Blue Legacy)

Alexandra Cousteau

My grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, always told me that we will never save the world unless women have equal access to education. I was fortunate that my family was able not only to give me the opportunity to attend good schools, but also helped me explore and experience the world outside the classroom. Whether we were on expedition, rescuing wildlife or working on community conservation, my formative years were spent learning with my hands, eyes and imagination.

I studied at Georgetown University, where such luminaries as Muhammad Yunus helped further shape my worldview. It was during this time that I began combining my childhood awe for our natural world with the conviction that we each have important roles to play in environmental preservation. The work I do through Blue Legacy International is shaped by this philosophy. Our projects help people understand and value their everyday relationship with water and show that protecting our environment is a way to work towards peace, opportunity and justice.

Alexandra Cousteau earned a degree in government from Georgetown University and is the founder and president of Blue Legacy International.


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ALT: Sophia Khawly (Courtesy of Melissa Meschler)

Sophia Khawly

Growing up, I traveled to Haiti each summer to visit my relatives and I saw how difficult life was for Haitian children. I founded the nongovernmental organization Hope for Haiti’s Children so Haitian children could attend school for free. Every summer, I volunteer in Port-au-Prince in the schools’ health clinics. I vividly remember one of my patients, Ezequiel, who was 7 years old and malnourished. I was supposed to vaccinate him for hepatitis B, but it was pointless because he lacked the proper nutrients necessary for the immunization to be effective.

I graduated from high school as a licensed practical nurse. In nursing, we are taught to provide holistic care and to act as a patient’s advocate, so I could not ignore Ezequiel’s poor nutritional state. I decided to incorporate a meal plan within his school so that the students were guaranteed two meals each day. This summer, I was overjoyed to see that Ezequiel had grown into a healthier boy.

Sophia Khawly is a 2011 graduate from Florida State University with a degree in nursing.


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ALT: Close-up of Marissa Mayer (Courtesy of Google)

Marissa Mayer

My education made me curious and confident, and those traits have enabled me to help others. Education really piqued my curiosity — I’ve always been very curious by my nature — but in school I learned how that curiosity could be rewarded. I loved learning and being able to figure things out. It is my curiosity that made me eager to work on Google Search and our quest to organize the world’s information. I’m proud of the tools we’ve built at Google to help people satisfy their curiosity, get better information and, hopefully, make better decisions.

My education also gave me confidence. It’s that confidence that has allowed me to work not as a woman but as a “geek” at Google. In male-dominated industries like technology, women need role models to progress. Women role models and mentors helped me build my confidence, and I now hope to do my small part by doing the same for other young women.

Marissa Mayer is the vice president of location and local services at Google. She earned degrees in symbolic systems and computer science from Stanford University.


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ALT: Oluwadamiloa Oladeru (Courtesy of UNCF/Merck Science Initiative)

Oluwadamiloa Oladeru

Born in Nigeria, a country torn by incomprehensible degrees of disparities, I was ignorant of my rights to a proper education. As I grew older, my desire for knowledge led to rejection — I was young and female and my abilities were therefore underestimated. Despite the challenges of migrating to America, I am grateful for the educational opportunities I have here, especially in the sciences. Since education is the best gift I have received, I did not want to wait until becoming “accomplished” to share it with the neglected and underserved. This inspired me to establish the Read at Peace Library in Erin-Ijesa, Nigeria. Education is a human right. It reduces poverty, improves health and, most importantly, affirms human dignity. I hope my commitment to improve education in the developing world will inspire other young people to do the same.

Oluwadamiloa Oladeru is a 2011 graduate from Yale University with a degree in biology and African studies.


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ALT: Amy Qian with two children (Courtesy of Amy Qian)

Amy Qian

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being barefoot, covered in sawdust, building things from whatever I could find. For me, making things has always been more than a hobby; it is a way of learning about and modifying my world.

In 2009, I traveled to China and met 20 college students from rural communities in Qinghai, where issues like clean water, sustainable energy and education are urgent. However, the students felt unsure which technologies could help them and were therefore unable to form a solution on their own. I organized a two-day workshop in which small teams built simple projects of wood and nails. Hesitant at first, the students gained confidence as their ideas materialized. Afterward, they eagerly suggested devices they could make to help their parents at home. Even though the students were not trained engineers, they discovered that there were pieces of the world that they were capable of changing.

Amy Qian is a 2011 graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering. Qian has helped to invent sustainable devices for cooking and heating.