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Inspired by the power of learning

Farhana Choudhury, Undergraduate Awards winner

A Manchester student has won a prestigious international award for a project inspired by the determination of women in Afghanistan and Nepal to learn.

Each year thousands of students from more than 120 countries submit their work to the Undergraduate Awards – known informally as the junior Nobel Prizes. Against this competition Farhana Choudhury came out on top in the education category.

The Oldham-based student, who at the time was studying for a BA in English Language for Education, submitted a research paper exploring the role literacy is playing in changing women’s lives in some of the world’s poorest communities.

Focusing on Afghanistan and Nepal, Farhana used official statistics and reports to reveal a story of how women in these countries are using reading and writing to improve their personal and family lives – for example, to help access modern health-care advice. She looked at how, in Afghanistan, even when education for women was banned under the Taliban, women set up secret underground schools, such was their desire to learn.

“I didn’t know much about these countries when I started my project,” Farhana recalls. “But I wanted to find out how, in societies that are often male-dominated, women are using literacy to improve their lives and to learn more about the ways in which it provides them with empowerment and freedom that they’ve previously been denied.”

Learning through research

Teaching at Manchester takes full advantage of the presence of the outstanding researchers at the University. The Undergraduate Awards entries are coordinated through the Learning through Research initiative, which gives undergraduates the chance to get involved in research activities as part of a structured and supported learning process.

This approach, coordinated by Professor Kersti Börjars, Associate Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students, is clearly bearing fruit. There were ten other highly commended entries from Manchester in 2017, while in 2016 there were two global award winners and 11 highly commended. 

I wanted to find out how women are using literacy to improve their lives.

Inspiring future generations 

For Farhana this topic hasn’t just resulted in an award, it’s also led her to take action closer to home.

“I know the University is big on social responsibility and I am too,” she says. “I’m in the process of starting a joint project with the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the University of Manchester Islamic Society, where volunteers go into schools located in socially deprived areas and try to inspire students to raise their aspirations.”

The award has also given Farhana a desire to do more research. She’s currently studying for a master’s degree in Psychology of Education. According to Professor Clive Agnew, Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students, that’s exactly the type of enthusiasm for a subject that the University is trying to encourage.

“This global award is a great achievement for Farhana and is richly deserved,” he says. “At the University, we believe that we have to do our utmost to help support talented students like her to realise their potential. Building skills to research the subjects that they’re passionate about is a very important part of that process.”

Who knows? Perhaps that passion might one day lead Farhana to a full Nobel Prize.

Words by Jamie Brown

Image by David Evans

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