Remarks by U.S. Ambassador Nancy J. Powell at the Modern High School for Girls

(As prepared for delivery)

Nomoskar, salamalekum, and good morning, everyone.

Ms. Birla, Ms. Somany, Director Kar, Principal Dutt, faculty, staff, and students, thank you for welcoming me to Modern High School for Girls this morning. I understand my visit has delayed your examinations – I am not sure whether that is welcome or not! Many years ago, I was Consul General at our Consulate in Kolkata, and I have wonderful memories of my time here. I am always thrilled to come back and enjoy some mishti doi [sweet yogurt], see the city, and speak with people. I am particularly pleased to be at Modern High School this morning, a school which has long recognized the significance of educating women and the important role they play in society.

Before I became a diplomat, I was a teacher, so it always brings me great pleasure to come to schools and speak to students. Education is close to my heart because of my background and because of its tremendous role in elevating people out of poverty and providing women and girls a chance to succeed.

The United States and India have both seen women make incredible advances in recent history. I stand before you here today, and yet only a few years before I joined the Foreign Service, women were required to resign their diplomatic commission when they married. In the U.S., we refer to the unseen barrier to the advancement of women as a “glass ceiling.” It took a long time for women to crack the glass ceiling in my profession, and while we have not completely closed the gender gap, as of 2012 women comprised 40 percent of the U.S. Foreign Service officer corps.

Everything I have learned about Modern High School for Girls tells me your education at this remarkable institution puts you well on your way achieve greater heights for you personally and for Indian women in general. Your school has a long history of illustrious women who have not let anyone stand in the way of their dreams. The issue of gender equality is important to all of us because reports show direct linkages between women’s engagement in the economy, politics, and society of a country and that country’s status across a range of social indicators. For example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women farmers had the same access to seeds, fertilizer, and technology as men do, they could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 100 to 150 million. We know that investing in the training and mentoring of women entrepreneurs lifts up their own families, and helps their countries’ economies grow. We invest in girls’ education so that they can escape forced or early marriage, break the cycle of poverty, and develop into community leaders and engaged citizens. At your school, you are being given the tools and knowledge to find creative solutions to gender inequality and continue us on the path to help the world meet the challenges of the future.

As your generation prepares itself to take the lead, I am proud to say that although I am the first female U.S. Ambassador to India, I will not be the last one. There are so many amazing women today who are showing girls that they can achieve whatever they put their minds to. Every woman who has stood up to oppression or achieved new heights is in good company. There are girls like Malala Yousafzai, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize at just 16 years old after defending the rights of girls to a quality education, and women like Janet Yellen, who shattered the glass ceiling when President Obama nominated her to become the first woman to be Chair of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and thus the single most influential person affecting worldwide monetary policy. Janet Yellen’s decisions affect politics, economics, and trade the world over. Bangalore’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who founded and runs the biotech firm Biocon, which makes affordable drugs for everything from cancer to diabetes, is also part of this group. Closer to home, your Mamata Bannerjee is the first female Chief Minister in West Bengal. These are just a few of the millions of women finding their voices, lifting up communities and nations, and paving the way for future generations to live a better life.

One thing all of these women have in common is a strong educational foundation. It is to our mutual benefit that our countries work together and one of the areas of great importance is education. Education is the great equalizer and the key to helping our young women achieve their goals.

For these and many other reasons, education has become one of the main pillars in the bilateral partnership between India and the United States.

Right now, there are close to 100,000 Indian students studying in the United States. Indian students represent one of the top two nationalities among our international students.

However, only 30 percent of the Indian students going to the U.S. to study are women. It is of paramount importance to me that we increase this number and see more women taking advantage of the opportunity to receive an international education. We can and we need to do better.

We are stepping up our efforts to increase the number of young women studying in the U.S. We now have “EducationUSA Centers” in seven locations throughout India – including here in Kolkata – to help you get clear and accurate information about opportunities to study in the U.S. EducationUSA Centers hold seminars on university application procedures and strategies. Studying in the U.S. can be expensive, but there are funds available that can help defray the costs, and EducationUSA Centers can explain the financial aid possibilities and process. They also have a library of test preparation materials, computer databases, and offer individual counseling. The Kolkata Center has a Facebook page, which you can find by searching for EducationUSA Kolkata. I encourage you to visit for additional information.

We also have a number of U.S. Government sponsored programs for students. For example, the State Department-sponsored Community College Initiative Program provides year-long educational and hands-on training opportunities in the United States for 40 Indian students every year. Another program, specifically for female students, is Study in the United States Institutes, which offer short-term programs for undergraduate student leaders. Our flagship Nehru-Fulbright Scholarship Program offers opportunities for post-graduate study in a range of areas. These are just a few examples of the opportunities – and what I want you to know is that there are opportunities. We want you to consider studying in the U.S. Be it for a summer, a semester, or a degree, we welcome you and know it will be an experience that will benefit you, the U.S.-India relationship, and the future.

We are so adamant about education for women because we know that there is still a long way to go before true gender equality is achieved. We also know that no country can get ahead if it is not committed to the achievement of all its people, women and men. The United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability, and peace, and that investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to advancing our shared interests and the U.S. bilateral relationship.

As young women benefitting from a quality education, you are the ones who will take the reins and lead the next generation. I look forward to seeing what ceilings you shatter and what goals you achieve. We all share a responsibility to ensure that all women are provided equal opportunities and welcomed as partners in global progress. When women succeed, communities and countries succeed. I thank you again for having me here today and can now answer questions about education and other topics.