Effat University Graduates Challenged to Shape Kingdom’s Future – Coleman

Published: June 21, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

Last month we were pleased to share Dr. Isobel Coleman’s story about the Effat University Class of 2012 commencement. The Jeddah-based women’s institution of higher education is among the organizations at “the forefront of change” in the Kingdom according to Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative, The Council on Foreign Relations.

“This past weekend, I had the honor of being the commencement speaker at Effat University, a private university for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was hardly the staid affair I expected. Colorful klieg lights lit the way of arriving parents and dignitaries; forget “Pomp and Circumstance”—the more than two hundred graduates and faculty paraded in to a pulsating techno beat, while stage fog swirled to dramatic effect. The array of high-heeled shoes under the graduates’ sky-blue abayas was breathtaking—everything from six inch high, hot-pink platform wedges, to cowboy boots, to the latest snakeskin and metallic Manolo Blahniks. What really impressed me was the energy and passion of the graduates. The president of the student government in her speech exhorted her fellow graduates—in a chant of “yes, we can”—to change the world around them.”

After sharing her blog post with you on SUSRIS we asked her to talk about her recent experiences in Saudi Arabia, including what she has learned about reform in education and women’s empowerment over time by visits to Effat and other harbingers of change. That exclusive SUSRIS interview is provided in a separate post. Dr. Coleman was the commencement speaker at the Effat graduation and she graciously shared her remarks to the Class of 2012 with us. They are provided here for your consideration along with our congratulations to the women of the Effat University Class of 2012.


Dr. Isobel Coleman
Commencement Remarks
Effat University
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
May 12, 2012

It is a great honor to be here today to address Effat University’s class of 2012. As graduates of this fine university, you are indeed your country’s future.

I like to quote the great Egyptian poet, Hafez Ibrahim who said, “A mother is a school. Empower her, and you empower a great nation.” You are graduating at a time of great change, and tremendous potential, particularly for women in this county. In many ways your generation will set the pace of change going forward. That pace of change has only quickened in your lifetime and will probably continue to accelerate.

Just think, when you were born in the early 1990s, the Internet was still a relatively simple communication tool, and more than half the world’s population had never made a telephone call. Today, all our lives are daily touched by the Internet; 85% of the world’s population has access to a mobile phone, transforming lives in so many ways; and Facebook, a company which didn’t even exist a few years ago, is poised for a $100 billion IPO.

The pace of change has quickened in Saudi Arabia too. In 1991, it was still relatively unusual for Saudi women to attend university. Today, as you well know, women are now the majority of college graduates in the Kingdom, a remarkable development with significant implications for your country’s future. And what you’re studying has shifted. When I first visited Effat College seven years ago, it was just beginning to add more business and technical degrees to its traditional curriculum. That move was resisted by some, but now Effat University graduates are proudly pushing forward in areas like engineering and computer science.

Already, your generation benefits from having more female role models to look up to than any generation before yours. There are a growing number of prominent Saudi female journalists, bankers, business owners, doctors, writers, television anchors, and government officials to follow. Professional Saudi women are the new normal. When I give talks about my book “Paradise Beneath Her Feet” in the States, I’m often asked, how did you FIND these remarkable women? And of course I laugh because finding them wasn’t the problem – there are so many. The only challenge was choosing among so many accomplished women to profile.

As the future leaders of your country, you will be asked to weigh in on important issues that have defined Saudi Arabian culture for many, many years. According to polls, more than half of the women in your generation say that they aspire to having a career, yet currently only around 10% of Saudi women are employed. Figuring out how to balance career aspirations with family obligations is a challenge for women around the world. I am a mother of five kids, and I can tell you that juggling my work and my family is not easy. Here in Jeddah this morning, I was on my Blackberry arranging how to get my daughter to her soccer game back home in New York.

So I appreciate that the juggling of family and career that stretches before you can at times be very hard. But I know how rewarding it is too. And I also know that your country needs you. It needs you as teachers, and doctors and engineers and scientists. I just visited King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) this morning – what an amazing facility just up the highway from you. KAUST needs your technical abilities to realize the potential of its world-class technology and labs. In a few years time, women will be able to stand as candidates in municipal elections. Maybe some of you will be among those trailblazers. Your country needs you as political leaders and ministers in government.

Effat University Map
Click for interactive map

This afternoon, I met with the head of Injaz in Saudi Arabia and he told me proudly how a team of Saudi female students won the national competition on entrepreneurship and went on to compete in Amman, Jordan. Just like those impressive young women, your country needs you to be entrepreneurs to start companies that will employ not only yourselves, but also others. You will be part of the solution in addressing Saudi’s employment issues.

Saudi Arabia also needs you as leaders of civil society – to start and run organizations that will help address the big challenges of our time – from youth engagement to the environment to improving education.

Graduating from Effat, you are well placed to be at the forefront of these changes. You will need to find ways to maintain the richness of your heritage and the aspects of your culture that make you proud, while at the same time navigating the currents of change and actively shaping a new future.

I congratulate you on your achievements and wish you every success professionally, and personally, going forward.


Isobel Coleman

Dr. Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, where she directs CFR’s civil society, markets, and democracy initiative and the women and foreign policy program. Her areas of expertise include democratization, civil society, economic development, regional gender issues, educational reform, and microfinance.

She is the author and coauthor of numerous publications, including Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East (Random House, 2010), Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President (Brookings Institution Press, 2008), and Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (Hoover Institution Press, 2006).

Dr. Coleman’s writings have also appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor, and Forbes, and online venues such as TheAtlantic.com and CNN.com. She is a frequent speaker at academic, business, and policy conferences. In 2010, she served as the track leader for the Girls and Women Action Area at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Prior to joining the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Coleman was CEO of a healthcare services company and a partner with McKinsey & Co. in New York. A Marshall scholar, she holds a BA in public policy and East Asian studies from Princeton University and MPhil and DPhil degrees in international relations from Oxford University. She serves on several non-profit boards, including Plan USA and Student Sponsor Partners.


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