Alissa Keith has a PhD in English language and linguistics, with a focus on adult additional language acquisition success, and has over a decade experience teaching English to international undergraduate students. For over a year, she has volunteered to help Afghan women develop their college entrance essays, and navigate admissions, funding, and visa application processes.

For the women in Afghanistan, the takeover of the Taliban in 2021 marked the end of their middle and high school education. It also shut the door on opportunities to pursue higher education and future careers.

I first met Shukria Rezayi* in January 2023, after responding to a call for volunteers to help Afghan women develop their American college admissions essays. Although I had been generally aware of what was happening in Afghanistan, Shurika’s story was eye-opening. 

“As long as I live I will never forget the days of the Taliban’s arrival,” Shurika told me. “They took so many things from me: not only my country, but my dreams, my goals. They started to close the schools for all the girls and took our rights one by one.”

Finding a way forward

The Taliban may have taken away these girls’ schools, but they didn’t take away their passion for learning. Despite the ban on women’s education, Shukria and many of her peers continued their studies as best they could: in secret, indoors, and mostly alone. 

Unable to attend university in Afghanistan, Shurika and others looked to move abroad to a country where they could study freely. But to come to the United States for college, they’d have to prove their English proficiency—and that was a big obstacle.  

Many colleges in the United States and Europe require an English proficiency test for international students. Traditionally, these tests are expensive and inaccessible to women in Afghanistan, as they often lack funding to pay for them. For the few that can afford a test, payment remains an obstacle because access to banking is restricted. Even if they could pay for it, and could access the funds, the fact is: many of these tests aren’t even available in Afghanistan, due to cost and lack of access to testing centers.

Enter the Duolingo English Test! 

For Shukria and a number of other Afghan women, the DET has helped them escape the oppression of the Taliban: it’s affordable and accessible (all you need is an internet connection). And thousands of universities around the world accept it at parity with traditional English language proficiency tests. 

The DET offers an opportunity for these women to move forward in their higher education dreams, and has been absolutely essential for them to earn student visas and gain admission at universities in the United States and Europe. 

Shukria and a number of her classmates have used the DET, among many other resources, to escape the Taliban, pursue education, and someday a career. These resilient women are now studying at universities in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Connecticut, and others both in the US and globally with help of scholarships, non-profits, and private donors.

Keeping hope alive  

Shukria, who is now pursuing a degree biomedical science at a university in central Virginia, hopes that her story will motivate other girls in her position. “Sometimes you have to escape for a better future,” she says. “I encourage girls in Afghanistan to continue their studies, and not to become hopeless. I want them to know that there are people that want to help them become successful in the future.”

Of course, many obstacles remain for women in Afghanistan. Leaving behind their homes, their families, their language, and their culture is extremely difficult. For those who have been lucky enough to escape, the opportunity to have a life, a career, and a future depends on the willingness of institutions to create inclusive, accessible resourcing. We’re proud that the Duolingo English Test can be that kind of resource, and inspire and support young women like Shukria, whose motto is: “If you try, you can fly.”

*Shukria Rezyai is a pseudonym to protect her privacy. I tell her story with her permission. And, truly her story reflects many of the women of Afghanistan right now.