“What is it,” she asked, almost in a whisper, “that you plan to do with your wild and miraculous life?”
And in that moment, you could almost glean flickers of light emanating from the members of her young audience, more than 2,500 girls and young women on the verge.
The challenge was issued by Shiza Shahid. And her listeners were comprised of high school and college students from Kent and adjacent counties, mesmerized by this woman who hails from half a world away.
But in some magical way, it felt as though she was having a private conversation with them all at the same time.
If you don’t know of Shiza Shahid yet, don’t fret. You will.
She’s the international figure, originally from Pakistan, who’s igniting women the world over with the desire to harness their gifts for the good of themselves and others.
In April, she spoke at an “Empowerment Forum” sponsored by the Michigan Women’s Foundation, which has its heart set for tomorrow’s female leaders and advocates.
And Shiza didn’t disappoint.
“I really liked the fact that she stressed the importance of regardless of where you are in the world, you can still reach out to help people in need,” said Abigail Choffell, a senior at Grand Rapids City High.
“There was nothing stopping her from achieving her goals, and I’ve now been inspired to take risks myself that I didn’t think I’d be able before.”
Added Daniela Puente, a senior at Innovation Central High, “Shiza’s talk was very inspiring and hopeful. It made me think a lot about what I want to do in the future to make a change.”
Shiza has that effect on people.
And she owes it mostly to the story of Malala Yousafzai, a fellow Pakistani who at the age of 15 was shot and critically injured by the Taliban while aboard a school bus, targeted for speaking out on behalf of women’s right to education.
For her bravery, Malala was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest to ever be so honored.
And her story – which includes forging a relationship with Shiza – is creating powerful ripples for girls and women in every corner of the planet.
That’s why the Michigan Women’s Foundation brought her here – not only to speak before their group, but to engage the hundreds of students – most from schools within the Kent Intermediate School District — who filed into Calvin College’s fieldhouse.
She shared the story of Malala, but also of herself, first drawing on her early years, during which she pursued a road of purpose and self-discovery. At 14, she began volunteering on behalf of babies born to women in prison, learning about how some “are discarded before they were even born.”
At 16, she assisted victims of an earthquake that claimed some 70,000, toiling in a relief camp where girls were ordered by oppressive males not to show their faces in public.
At 17, Shiza developed a thirst to change the world, but knew she’d need a formal education. She found one at Stanford University in the States, whose administrators were impressed enough to award her a full-ride scholarship.
During her sophomore year, she learned about Malala, 11 at the time, who was blogging about the importance of education – a slap in the face to the Taliban.
After graduating Stanford, Shiza accepted a job as a consultant and was assigned to Dubai, her “dream job.” But not for long. When she heard Malala had been attacked, she flew to be by her side in a hospital in England.
While there, she realized that “There are certain moments when you have to decide who you are,” and she implored her audience to “Let your heart guide you, for it already knows.”
In the midst of that epiphany, Shiza recalls, “Someone needed…to build a movement.”
The result of that realization is the “Malala Fund,” set up to support local entrepreneurs who sponsor programs to increase educational opportunities for girls and women – groups like the Michigan Women’s Foundation.
Shiza’s turnaround wasn’t lost on Puente, who now feels charged to help girls of Mexican descent like herself. “There are thousands of girls in Mexico that do not have the same opportunities I do,” she said. “So I’m inspired to try to reach out to girls there, and help them get an education, in addition finishing mine.”
Deriana Peoples, a senior at Grand Rapids Union High, echoed similar sentiments: “Shiza taught us all not to give up on our dreams,” she said. “When you make a mistake, you need to correct it and learn from it.
“That’s how you become great.”
Worldwide, says Shiza “66 million girls are missing from classrooms,” and those numbers increase as refugees continue to surface amid growing tensions overseas.
Shiza’s message hit home for Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.
Calling Shiza’s appearance “A defining moment,” she said that “We may never have the opportunity to experience this again,” and asked the audience to consider “becoming all that you can be.”
She added that change begins close to one’s roots, and issued a challenge to affect things “in your home, your schools, your churches, becoming the leader you were meant to be.”
“There are,” said the superintendent, “no boundaries.”
Following her remarks, Shiza was asked by a member of her audience how someone attending high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan can have a worldwide impact.
“People make it complicated,” Shiza answered, suggesting that too often, we “hear about something horrible but very quickly stop noticing it. We become de-sensitized.”
Instead, she offered, “Become more aware. So much is broken. Acknowledge the truth that it’s wrong, and then make it your place to feel like you should care.”
Start a blog to combat things like bullying, she said. Build up your knowledge, your expertise.
“Don’t wait,” she said, “for someone prettier, for someone richer.”