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Teen endows stipend for Bangladeshi women

High school student's efforts will pay for multiple college educations

March 11, 2010 | 12:50 PM
Port Jefferson high school junior Maya Mason has raised over $1,500 to provide education for less fortunate female students in Bangladesh.

Maya Mason with her mother Molly at a bake sale at the Port Jefferson Village Center on Saturday to raise money for her Grameen Shikkha scholarship. Courtesy Maya Mason. (click for larger version)
Mason, 16, said she first began tackling the issue of global gender equality last fall at the Take the Lead program at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, the first women's college in the nation. Take the Lead encourages high school juniors from across the country to undertake projects that help them turn ideas into action to effect positive change, according to Mason. Having focused on how to improve education for women in developing countries during the weekend at Mount Holyoke, Mason began contacting over a dozen organizations around the world to turn her idea into action.

The junior, who has lived in Port Jefferson all her life, said the Grameen Foundation in Washington, D.C., stood out most. Established by a group inspired by 2007 Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the Grameen Foundation works to enable the poor, especially the poorest, to create a world without poverty, according to its website. Grameen Shikkha (Shikkha means education in Bengali), a branch of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, provides scholarships to poor meritorious students, especially in the rural areas of Bangladesh.

Since contacting the foundation in January, Mason said her fundraising efforts at her school and around the community have enabled her to raise $1,900, $400 more than the minimum required to create a Grameen Shikkha scholarship, which in Bangladesh provides any level of education for five years. "Everyone's been so helpful to me," said Mason, who held numerous bake sales at her school, community meetings and the Port Jefferson Village Center over the past two months.

To express her gratitude to village residents and officials for their support, Mason has named her scholarship "The Maya Mason Scholarship Honoring the Community Spirit of Port Jefferson, N.Y." In choosing the recipient of her scholarship, Mason said she has asked the Grameen Foundation to select a female student who wishes to receive a college education. While the money is given to the recipient in monthly disbursements over five years, the balance remains in a bank and generates interest income, allowing the scholarship to sponsor a new student for another five years, according to Mason. In this way, the program continues to support multiple students.

Mason, who will receive updates about her scholarship recipients twice a year, said her goal is to help "people who are highly motivated and great scholars but probably wouldn't be able to afford an education" without financial assistance. "I realized how fortunate I am to be able to have a great education," she said. "In this day and age it's just expected that people go to college, but many people are not as fortunate in other countries, especially women because it's not standard for them to get an education."

With expectations of continuing her work with the Grameen Foundation in the future, Mason said she hopes her efforts show young people that they can effect positive change. "We need to make sure there's a better world for tomorrow," she said. "The future is in our hands, so we have to make sure we treat the world properly and have a positive influence."

Mason's mother, Molly, said she has been very proud of her daughter's fortitude, which has enabled her to become the youngest person to create a Grameen Shikkha scholarship. "I think it's just phenomenal that one young person can do something that will be so meaningful to so many young women in Bangladesh," Molly said. "This is a wonderful program. I think if more young people realize they can have such a profound effect on someone in an impoverished nation, they'll want to get involved."

Sabrina Quaraishi, who manages the Grameen Foundation Scholarship Program, called Maya's dedication, generosity of spirit and perseverance "an inspiration to many." Quaraishi said, "Education provides opportunities for these poor rural students to break away from the cycle of poverty." Maya's "hard work," she said, will give poor children the "ability to dream of a better future."

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