On Thursday night, nearly 600 college women sat quietly in their seats, staring up at a stage where six amazing women gathered.
It was the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL) Women of Distinction Awards ceremony. The women on the stage -- NPR host Michel Martin, women's activist Noorjahan Akbar, cartoonist Liza Donnelly, bike share entrepreneur Alison Cohen, political phenom Maggie Williams, and birth control advocate Sandra Fluke -- have already made extraordinary contributions to their professions or communities. We in the audience were hoping to follow in the awardees' footsteps.
Thankfully, we -- the (mostly) young and inexperienced but eager -- were about to get a little advice. While all the speeches were inspiring, the messages went well beyond the typical ideas of hard work and perseverance.
Donnelly, who has broken great barriers for women as a New Yorker cartoonist and comedian, described how she learned from an early age to be submissive. Her spunky sister often got in trouble for challenging authority, so Donnelly learned that it was wrong to do that. But comedy is all about challenging the rules, she said, so her advice was to take risks, never give up, and speak out.
If Fluke, then a Georgetown law student, had not challenged the chair of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee -- who wouldn't allow her to testify on a panel about the need for access to birth control -- she would not have become the face of a national movement. But Fluke said that eventually testifying in front of Congress was an opportunity she received only because of her extraordinary education. And she was not the only woman who spoke about the privilege that education affords us.
If Akbar, who is in her early 20s, had not had the opportunity to get an education, which few women in Afghanistan do, she might never have been up on that stage. She also would not have founded Young Women for Change, a nonprofit that is committed to empowering Afghan women.
Hearing these women speak, I was reminded of how lucky I and the other women in the room are to have our education. As a kid, I joined every club and sport possible, and I used those experiences in my college applications. After I graduated from high school, my parents generously paid my way to the University of Maryland, College Park. Throughout my time there, I had endless support from my family and friends. They trusted my decisions and were excited for my future.
Now I'm in "the future." I'm a year out of college, and I'm doing work that I really love with the American Association of University Women (AAUW). For the first time in my life, I finally have an answer when people ask me what I want to do. I used to tell people what I thought they wanted to hear or something unrealistic because I had no idea how I would pursue such a goal. But now I know I want to make a difference.
And I realize, thanks to the 2012 NCCWSL Women of Distinction, that my experience has to inform my understanding of the struggles of others. We've all dealt with internal struggles that made our experiences our own and maybe a few that stumped us at times. But we can look to the opportunities we have today for reassurance. We, as a gathering of college women, must take the responsibility that comes with our education and use it to help people. We are the voice of those who don't and won't have the opportunity to change reality like we can.
That's what we, the women in the audience, learned. And that's what we need to do to become the women on the stage.
This post originally appeared here.