CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH — It is not the most glamorous of campuses: a handful of converted apartment blocks, huddled around a short, narrow gated street that ends in a small garden. Tucked away inside the buildings, there is a small library, a dining hall, a doctor’s clinic, classrooms and a small gym where karate classes are held.
For the 541 students who attend the Asian University for Women, the basic and somewhat cramped facilities are home. And for many of them, the university, which opened its doors in this sprawling, bustling Bangladeshi port in 2008, represents the rare and coveted chance to get an English-language, university-level education.
Nearly all of the students come from deprived backgrounds. Their room, board and education costs — which total about $15,000 a year — are covered by donations. Most of the students would not be here without the funding and the university’s female-only admissions policy.
They come from a dozen countries as varied as Cambodia, Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar, India and, of course, Bangladesh, where the university is located. They practice many religions and speak 33 languages.
Soon, recruitment will be extended to three more countries — Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia — for an even more diverse mix.
Stepping into the university lets a person visit “a dozen different countries all at once,” said Chogyel Wangmo, one of 23 students from the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. “There are no prejudices, no assumptions.”
Ms. Wangmo, who had to walk several kilometers to submit her application, is the first woman from her village to attend a university.
“It was quite a shock to come here,” said Bayan Hisham Salaymeh, who wears a head scarf and is a native of Hebron in the Palestinian territories. The traffic, the different language, even the spicy food was an adjustment.
“I had never been in a place with so much diversity before,” said Ms. Salaymeh, 21.
Many of the students had never been abroad before they came to this university. Many had limited English and computer skills and were given a year of preparatory training before starting their formal undergraduate studies.
All of them were selected for being dynamic and determined, and for their dedication to making their education count.
“We look for the gleam in their eyes,” said Kamal Ahmad, the university’s founder. “We look for courage, a sense of outrage at injustice, and empathy — a sense that they are moved by the woes of other people.”
Born in Bangladesh and educated in the United States, Mr. Ahmad worked for many years in development organizations and as a lawyer in the United States and Britain. A passionate believer in education, he arranged basic schooling for children in the slums in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka when he was a teenager.
Mr. Ahmad said that educating young women could play a critical role in Asia, where, despite progress in some countries, gender discrimination and stereotyping are still rife.
Mr. Ahmad’s decision to set up a university for women was, in part, a deliberate attempt to help redress some of the gender imbalances in tertiary education. It also builds on the fact that women tend to deploy their skills, income or education to support their families and communities — and that educating and empowering young women, in particular, is thus likely to benefit their societies as a whole, Mr. Ahmad said.
Taslima Khanam, who attends the Asian University for Women and is from Chittagong, is studying public health with the goal of helping the government of Bangladesh combat medical issues.
Sumpa Sarkar, also from Bangladesh, plans to get a doctorate in politics and become a professor. “I want to share my knowledge with other people,” she said by telephone from the French city of Reims, where she and Ms. Khanam are on a one-year exchange program at the prestigious Institut d’Études Politiques.
There are also young women like Mowmita Basak Mow, a native of Chittagong, who, like so many of the women here, exudes confidence and enthusiasm that is likely to help her go far.
Kubra Panahzada is one of 40 students from Afghanistan, who, before she came to Chittagong, set herself up as a liaison between nongovernmental groups and companies offering spare parts and other supplies.
“A friend of mine in Kabul is a businessman — and I thought, if he can do this, why not me?” she said.
“I want to help others as well as myself,” Ms. Panahzada, 24, added. “I am the future of my country.”
Mr. Ahmad said that the Asian University for Women was not only about academic training and exposing students to other cultures and religions, but it is also about giving hundreds of young women the confidence to challenge established assumptions about themselves and others.
Meherun Ahmed, who teaches social sciences at the university, said that the young women were often timid and inhibited when they arrived; some were even depressed. For many, being encouraged to think independently and critically, rather than learning by rote, is new and takes time and adjustment.
“But there’s a real fighting spirit,” Ms. Ahmed said. “If you look at them now, you wouldn’t believe the difficulties they had.”
The Asian University for Women has received financial backing and other high-profile support from around the world. Its chancellor, for example, is Cherie Blair, the wife of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. Mrs. Blair is an international human rights lawyer and campaigner for women’s equality.
On the financial front, donations of about $50 million have come from individual donors and organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. State Department. In May, the IKEA Foundation committed $5 million to sponsoring 100 students for five years.
The Bangladeshi government, whose female foreign minister, Dipu Moni, is a trustee of the university, has made available a large plot of land on the outskirts of Chittagong.
There, a new campus is slowly emerging from the rugged terrain, with the help of a work force that includes women as well as men.
Once the new complex is finished, there will be room for 3,000 students. But the going is slow, and the funding is hard to obtain, so completion remains a long way off. Until then, the lack of space in the existing campus is a major hurdle to expansion.
A milestone for the fledgling outfit, meanwhile, comes next May, when the first group of students — 138 in all — graduates.
There are dreams of jobs with international companies, of postgraduate degrees, of setting up businesses and nongovernmental organizations, and of promoting women’s education back home.
Among the expected 2013 graduates is Nazneen, 26. Already, her studies have taken her from her home in the Hunza Valley, in the mountainous far north of Pakistan, to Stanford University, where she took part in a summer academic program last year. Nazneen, who uses only one name, is majoring in politics, philosophy and economics and has also done an internship at the World Bank. Her next goal is to get a master’s degree.
As for Ms. Salaymeh, the student from Hebron, she has embraced the diversity that shocked her when she arrived. The conflict in and around the Palestinian territories, she said, is “suffocating” — and she is determined to help change that once she returns, by helping people become more aware of the world outside.
“I can’t think of another place on earth,” she said, “that needs my help as much as my home country.”