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Author: Educated girls make a difference

| Thursday, April 29, 2010

"High-five!"

Greg Mortenson -- author of best-sellers "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools" -- smiled and softly slapped outstretched hands as he greeted, microphone-in-hand, a group of middle school students gathered Wednesday afternoon in the chapel at Robert Morris University.

Mortenson is the co-founder of the Central Asia Institute -- a nonprofit that has built 130 schools with a special mission to educate girls in the remote reaches of rural Afghanistan and Pakistan. He traveled to Pittsburgh for the Robert Morris University 2009-10 Pittsburgh Speakers Series at Heinz Hall.

His day began in Washington with an appearance before Sens. John Kerry. D-Mass. and Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; progressed with a side trip to the Pentagon to meet top military advisers; and ended in Pittsburgh's sparkling symphony hall.

The local appearance gave Mortenson the opportunity to connect with Beaver Falls middle school students, who made his day, the author said.

The 50-year-old Bozeman, Mont., and father of two said he has a soft spot for students. He insists that education might be the one factor that can change the world.

Although bloody battles rage in Afghanistan, there have been significant advances, Mortenson said. The schools that his group have begun are just part of the story.

"In 2000, there were 800,000 students in school in Afghanistan. In 2010, there were 9 million -- and 3 million of them were girls. This is the greatest increase in school enrollment in modern history, and no on is aware of it," Mortenson said, citing UNICEF reports.

In nearly two decades since Mortenson wandered lost and sick off the slopes of K2 -- the second-highest mountain in the world -- only to be nursed back to health by poverty-stricken villagers in Baltistan, the former night nurse and one-time Army medic said he has grown increasingly convinced that education -- especially educating girls -- is the only answer to the ills that plague the region.

"There is an African proverb: 'If you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl, you educate a community or a nation,' " Mortenson said.

"There is no military solution. We cannot fight our way to peace there," he said, insisting that winning hearts and minds is the only way to triumph in that part of the world.

Although the U.S. military repeatedly has consulted with Mortenson, some question whether an occupying army can mimic his success.

Army Col. Gian Gentile, who commanded an armored battalion in Baghdad in 2006 and now is a history professor at West Point, is among them.

"I thought it ("Three Cups of Tea") was a wonderful and inspiring read about a driven and decent man who is committed to helping better the lives of people in the world. ... It is one thing for Mortenson, the individual by himself on the ground in the Hindu Kush to do such things. It is a stretch though, to assume that what he did can be militarized to the point where you have rifle companies and battalions trying to do the very same thing."

For more information on Central Asia Institute, and its work, go to www.ikat.org .

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