Ms. Saha Khaterzai '08, a Presidential Management Fellow at the White House Office of Budget and Management, served as the 2017 Commencement keynote speaker with a message on the importance of using one's voice, being made stronger by setbacks, and making an impact.
"You already possess the ability to make your community and country a better place," she told the graduates. "While hearing poor political discourse and hateful language, particularly from political leaders, can be discouraging and upsetting, it doesn't mean you cannot influence change. I have found it challenging to be a Muslim refugee working for an administration that developed a ban on Muslims. However, by speaking out and standing up for others you have the power to bring about positive change."
Khaterzai moved to the United States just 10 days after Sept. 11, 2001. She was born in Afghanistan at the height of the civil war, and described her first memories as being "of bullets and bombs."
"The day my family fled Kabul, I was playing in my living room, just like yours, when rockets were fired into our home. We had no choice but to flee," she said. "My family and I walked for hours through the war-ravaged city, occasionally stopping so my mom who was seven months pregnant could rest."
The family accepted a ride on a truck and, hidden among oil barrels, arrived at the border of Pakistan. They settled in the new country, where Khaterzai's parents founded a private, mixed gender school for Afghan children when she and her siblings were barred from local schools. The family continued to face limited opportunities, harassment, and intimidation. When they arrived in the United States, bigotry and discrimination continued.
"It wasn't until I joined St. Anne's-Belfield that I grew comfortable with and gained confidence in my identity," she said. "Here at the School, I was encouraged to embrace my Afghan culture as we celebrated different cultures. I started an organization to help rebuild schools in Afghanistan. My fellow classmates not only pitched in, but were equally invested in my passion. In this very School, I gained the courage to not only speak up for myself but to also advocate for others."
Khaterzai credits Mrs. Laura Robertson as one of the most influential teachers during her time at the School, which began in the Upper School.
"I came to St. Anne's-Belfield as a freshman, having only lived in the U.S. for a couple of years before that," she said. "I was in Mrs. Robertson's ESL class. She not only taught me English, but mentored me during my four years at the School. She went above and beyond her responsibilities to ensure I adjusted well, and invested a lot of time in my success. I had similar experiences with my other teachers as well in the sense that they invested in their students outside of the classroom. "
Taking part in an optional civil rights seminar that met outside of typical school hours also helped Khaterzai in expressing her views and engaging in thoughtful debate.
"One of the most valuable skills I learned at the School was how to delve deeply into a complex set of issues with the aim of providing a meaningful solution," she said. "St. Anne's-Belfield taught me how to debate ideas and how to approach interconnected challenges. Those skills not only prepared me for college but also for my present career... it was at the School where I developed the ability to think critically."
From June through August of 2009, Khaterzai served as an intern for Dr. Frozan Fanaa, one of two female candidates in the Afghan presidential elections in Kabul, Afghanistan. After spending a gap year in Afghanistan, Khaterzai enrolled in the University of Virginia's College of Arts and Sciences with a desire to shape a career in global health. She went on to obtain a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and served as a policy advisor at the White House Office of Management and Budget, a research assistant at The Brookings Institution, and a press and public policy intern at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, among other positions.
The full text of Khaterzai's 2017 Commencement address may be found here.