Walking West Toward Education

Photography by Tracy Doyle

By some estimates, there are 29,000 foreign-born women between the ages of 18 and 44 in the Tri-State who have a high school diploma, but not a baccalaureate degree. They have a higher rate of unemployment than their American counterparts, and those who are employed tend to earn less.

Dr. George Sehi is hoping to change those statistics and the lives of women through his non-profit organization, Women Walking West, Inc.

In January of 2015 Dr. Sehi started Women Walking West, Inc., also known as W3, with the goal to help foreign-born women who are legally living in the U.S. achieve their educational goals with initiatives to overcome five major barriers: Language, social, cultural, academic and financial. The organization provides career counseling, tutoring, mentoring, internships and financial support.

W3 was years in the making. Dr. Sehi arrived in the United States from Iran in 1975 with $500 and a dream of achieving his own educational goals. Although his student visa status and other barriers made it difficult to continue his education, he persevered. But he was dealt a devastating blow in 1978 when an earthquake destroyed his hometown and killed many family members, including his father. His family lost everything and any financial support from them stopped.

Dr. Sehi’s early years in the U.S. were never far from his mind during his 30-year career as a college professor and dean. His experience allowed him a unique perspective and empathy as he watched foreign-born students, especially women, try to navigate the system.

“I saw so many students coming to me when I was a dean for 20 years, and the students who were women from third-world countries had a lot more challenges than other foreign students because education in their countries was not mainly for women,” he says. “If you were coming from the Middle East, or even some of the European countries, education was mainly for men.

 “I saw that they were a lot more intimidated, and they could not navigate through the system. They were afraid to ask questions, they thought because they were women they couldn’t understand math and science, and the list goes on. And at that point it became my mission to do something.”

 There is also a personal reason Dr. Sehi helps women achieve their educational goals: he is the father of two daughters. “When I look at them – they are first-generation Americans and don’t (face the same challenges) because they were born here – I feel that I have an obligation to do what I’m doing. So there is no question in my mind that they have played a role.”

The positive response to W3 has surprised its founder. “The community support has exceeded our expectations by far,” says Dr. Sehi. Sponsors include banks, industries, hospitals, universities and corporations that support the organization in a variety of ways. 

“For us, this is an issue of social justice,” Dr. Sehi says. “We believe, that what we are doing is in line with the mission of the organization in general to make sure that the diverse, minority population is educated.”

Women Walking West, Inc. has been able to help more women than Dr. Sehi could have imagined. “We have just been really fortunate to have strong partnerships, and as a result we have been able to provide support for 35 women so far, and that’s in a short period of time. I think it is a remarkable result.”

Dr. Sehi attributes the success to his board of directors, which consists of community leaders with a passion for social justice and the need for education. “We are only a year-and-a-half old. Our board, which is very strong, consists of  competent community leaders, who are passionate about this, and who are the main reason why we have community support. Nobody knew about us a year ago, so we had to do a lot of communication through the right players. We were able to build this partnership and credibility by having the right players on our board.”

Although scholarships and cash awards are part of the program, Dr. Sehi says academic support is the main focus. One crucial element of that is the mentoring program where foreign-born women are paired with a professional mentor who will help them navigate the process of completing their education. There are 62 professional mentors working with the program.

“If we are serious about future generations and making America stay strong as it is today, we cannot ignore diversity,” Dr. Sehi says. “We cannot ignore workforce development. And we should never forget that America is a melting pot of people coming from all over the world, to make this place the best in the world. And what we are doing is one very small way to contribute to that.” 

For more information, call 513-604-7213, email info@womenwalkingwest.org, or visit womenwalkingwest.org.