05/21/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Carrying On My Mother's Mission: Education for Girls

This post is part of the Global Mom Relay. Every time you share this blog, $5 will go to women and girls around the world. Scroll to the bottom to find out more.

When I was in middle school, my mother and I lived alone in a dingy apartment complex where the cockroaches leapt out from kitchen drawers in the middle of the night. I slept on a beat up mattress we had salvaged together from the dumpster and heaved up to our sweltering third floor apartment. That would be my bed for the next three years.

My mother had just begun her third career, relocating the two of us from a small town in Maine down to Pennsylvania. As an immigrant woman, she knew that her only route to success lay in education and re-education. "Education," she would say, "That's the only way."

Those weren't easy times, but we got through them. My mother eventually kick-started her career as an actuary at age 38, and when I started high school, we moved to a better school district. It's unstated, but sometimes she looks at the house we live in now, the room I have to myself now, the marble countertop of the kitchen now, and smiles proudly. All those extra years of schooling and re-schooling in different career paths paid off.

Because of my mother, it has always seemed self-evident that girls were strong and could do anything they set their minds to, as long as they were given the chance to get an education. Unfortunately, many girls in the developing world living in situations much worse than my roach-infested kitchen and dumpster mattress are never afforded that opportunity.


That's why I'm proud to be a Teen Advisor to the United Nations Foundation campaign Girl Up, a "for girls, by girls" movement that mobilizes American girls to raise funds and awareness for UN programs that benefit girls in developing countries. There are 67 million children that are not in elementary school, and more than half of these are girls. In Liberia, for instance, most girls drop out before they get to the sixth grade.

Education, as I learned from my mother, is more than textbook learning. It's the opportunity for a better life. For girls in the four developing countries that Girl Up works in--Ethiopia, Liberia, Guatemala, and Malawi, it can mean avoiding long work hours, staying healthy, and the possibility of getting a job.

Take Malala Yousafzai, the brave 15-year-old Afghani activist who literally took a bullet for girls' education. Or Catherine Kauka, a 19-year-old girl from Mwakaoka Village, Malawi and a beneficiary of Girl Up programs. Catherine cares for her blind grandmother, but also works selling fish to fund her education. "Since I was young, my thoughts have been about education," says Catherine. "Girls need the support of everyone to make this happen; to give us hope."

For girls like Catherine, for girls like me, and in honor of the hard work of my mother, I joined a coalition of girls across the country in the Girl Up movement. I am part of the leadership team of 16 girls who serve as Teen Advisors, but I know that behind us stand 300,000 Girl Up supporters and 300 Girl Up clubs in 31 states and 20 countries. This is a worldwide movement for girls' education, empowerment, and safety that cannot be stopped.

As I prepare to graduate from high school and attend Harvard University in the fall, I will look down that aisle in my cap and gown and know that I have been given this opportunity to succeed because of my mother. Because of her belief in education. Because of her hard work.
And I will know that it will be up to me to follow in her footsteps--to give every girl, whether she lives in America or Malawi, the same educational opportunity that my mother so firmly believed in.

I invite you to join me in my mission in supporting Girl Up. For that dumpster mattress I spent three years on and my mother's sacrifices. For Catherine Kauka of Malawi selling fish to fund her education. For the right of girls to be safe and educated. As my mother would say, that's the only way.

Each time you share this Global Mom Relay piece on Facebook, Twitter, or Email, or donate $5 or more through clicking on the above graphic, a $5 donation (up to $62,500 per week or $125,000 every two weeks) will be donated by Johnson & Johnson and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Girl Up. Join us by sharing it forward and unlock the potential for women and children around the globe. For more information, visit The United Nations Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, BabyCenter, The Huffington Post, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation created the Global Mom Relay, a first-of-its-kind virtual relay with a goal of improving the lives of women and children around the globe.