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Princess of Asturias Award for International Cooperation 2019
Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you so much for this incredible honor.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Khan Academy, we are a not-for-profit organization with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. And what started a little over a decade ago as a project tutoring one 12-year-old cousin and soon word spread in my family that free tutoring was going on soon spread and now is reaching roughly 100 million learners every year. And to understand what it is, imagine learners around the planet who might have a question, who might be having trouble in school, we want to be the tutor that their family might not be able to afford. For a student who might not have access to school, we hope they can go to Khan Academy and start from wherever they are and learn whatever they need to do to be a productive member of society. For a teacher, we hope that we can be their teaching assistant, so that they can better meet the needs of all of their students and have information and help them unblock any struggle they might have.
There are over 40 translation projects around the world and I am happy to say that Spanish is the most developed of those projects. And as far as we’ve come so far –and I have to be clear, Khan Academy is much more than me; there are thousands of people who volunteer and hundreds of thousands of people who’ve donated, hundreds of people who work with me full time– and what I tell all of them is that as far as we’ve come, there’s far, far more to do. We have the vision of reaching everyone; whether it is a young girl in a village, in a slum outside of Bombay, or whether it’s a young boy in Oviedo or New York who is struggling, but dreams of making something of themselves. And to appreciate how much potential there is, I’ll tell you one story about a young girl named Sultana. About 7 years ago, she was 12 years old. She live in a town in Afghanistan and the Taliban conquered her town and forbade young girls from going to school, including Sultana, and they directly threatened her with physical violence if she even dared. So she spent all her time –she didn’t go to school– at home, cooking, cleaning… doing chores.
But lucky for her, her brother-in-law saw that she was very curious and very bright and decided to buy bought her a low-cost laptop and get her an Internet connection. And so that was her lifeline to the world. She starts figuring out how to learn, soon she discovers Khan Academy and she starts learning. And one thing leads to another and she famously talks about the day she learned, she realized that she was learning more than her brothers in Taliban-controlled schools. So she kept going and she went from a middle-school level. She learned algebra, trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, biology.
And then she got into her mind by the age of 17 –a young girl in a Taliban-controlled town– that she would like to become a physicist and study in the United States. So once again, she learns that if she takes a test called the SAT in the United States for college entrance, she might be able to get into some of these colleges and might even be able to get a scholarship. But it wasn’t available in Afghanistan. So she lies to her parents and she smuggle herself from Afghanistan to Pakistan, across one of the most dangerous borders in the world, to take the SAT. So if any of you who have young kids at home who complain about taking a test, tell them the story. And as you can imagine, for someone with no formal schooling, especially no formal schooling in English, she did remarkably well.
And then she tried to apply to schools in the United States, but she wasn’t able to show the financial means, she wasn’t able to get a visa. But luckily, a writer for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff, finds out about this story and he writes a piece in The New York Times titled “Meet Sultana, the Taliban’s Worst Fear.” Then Sultana, because of that piece, was able to get political asylum to the United States and get admission. And I just had an email exchange with Sultana last week and she just finished the summer at CalTech doing research in quantum computing.
And so a story that I think that for anyone when you see her, you say what type of determination, what type of resilience! But when you really think of it, how many more Sultanas are there in the world? The things happened right for her, but imagine if one of those pieces didn’t fit. There might be another thousand Sultanas in that town; there might be a million Sultanas in Afghanistan… girls and boys. There might be a Sultana outside of this door; there might be a Sultana anywhere we see. And so the goal here is not just for them, it’s frankly for all of us. Because if we allow them to become who their potential is, they will contribute to us all. They will find cures for diseases; they will write great literature. If we don’t their energies might go in directions that are very negative to us all.
And so I’ll just finish with an idea, and a lot of people have been asking me this, in this past week, which has been one of the most memorable weeks of my life.
Many people assume that technology, as productive as it can make us, may be a force for dehumanization in society. And it’s is a real risk, but, in my mind, it does not have to be the case. In fact, and Sultana is a good example and there are millions more potentially like her, I believe that technology can be used to makes our lives more human, not less. Imagine a world where classroom time is no longer for sitting quietly and passively listening to a lecture, but instead for kids collaborating and working on learning things at their own time and pace. Imagine the role of the teacher changing, so they are not distant from the students giving the lecture, but they are empowered with information that will help them have the best possible personal interactions with their students. Imagine a world where every child truly has access to a free, world-class education. To me –and I think this award goes to this mission– that world sounds like the most human and humane worlds of all.
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