SIA student selected for prestigious UNESCO fellowship to combat rise of violent extremism

Shumaila Fatima

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State School of International Affairs student Shumaila Fatima is no stranger to helping make the world a better place.

She started a nonprofit organization with a colleague in her native India to help underprivileged children obtain an education; came to SIA to learn more about policy and community development to improve the state of international education; and now will join the first cohort of a new UNESCO program that aims to curb the rise of violent extremism around the world.

“This opportunity is a dream come true,” Fatima said. “For years, I’ve dreamed of someday hopefully being able to work with the United Nations—so when I learned of this opportunity through SIA’s adviser, I jumped at the chance to apply, and everything happened very suddenly.”

The new UNESCO program, which has recruited top-tier students from across Penn State and other universities will focus on deploying these fellows to key locations across the globe to develop tools and policy to curb the rise of violent extremism through education, youth programs, and promotion of cultural heritage.

“For a long time, agencies have seen youth as only a vulnerable group. That simply clicking on the wrong website could radicalize them,” said UNESCO Chair for Community, Leadership and Youth Development and Penn State professor Mark Brennan. “It is more nuanced. The community aspect is important. There needs to be socio-economic opportunities. If young people are embedded in their communities, their voices can be heard.”

Fatima has had a passion for education from a young age, and sees the upward mobility an education provides as a key tool in addressing social ills—such as the number of youth who have been radicalized into joining extremist organizations. Having seen firsthand how many Indian children are denied access to quality education, Fatima co-founded a nonprofit that provides counseling to families and resources to help children attend school. This experience, paired with her courses on economic and community development at SIA, has provided an excellent foundation to begin building educational programs for youth in Doha, the capital city of Qatar.

“This issue is very personal to me,” Fatima said. “Education is at the heart of solving any global issue, be it economic, political, or social. If people have better education, and greater access to it, we can see these kinds of issues in the long run being reduced—if not resolved.”

Fatima will join a team of scholars from across Penn State , including from the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and the College of Education, who will work in key UNESCO offices around the world to develop programs in regions of strategic significance in curbing violent extremism.

“We feel the fellows will come in with cutting-edge knowledge and new techniques to contribute,” said Brennan. “UNESCO is excited. All of our key partners are excited.”

For Fatima, this opportunity represents the chance to learn and grow from some of the top names in the field of international and community development while continuing her dedication to make a positive impact on the world through the life-changing power of education.

“Perhaps more than anything else, I’m very grateful to have this chance. The first thing I did when I found out I’d been selected was call my father, who was been very supportive,” Fatima said. “This is exactly the kind of work I want to do, so I’m very excited. This is an incredible opportunity that the school is providing me.”