[make over]
Hungry for Change
Bringing educational opportunities to Iraqi women
by Ryan T. Blystone

Change is often risky, tough and uncomfortable — especially when the venue is Iraq.

For Suzanne Lesko ’02, who wears camouflage, sturdy boots, helmet and, at times, “battle rattle” gear, altering the perception of change is why she’s in Iraq.

“Everyone comes here for a different reason,” says Lesko, a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, via telephone from Baghdad. “For me it’s having that boots-on-the-ground experience and knowing what it’s really like.”

Lesko, in Iraq since June 2007, put military training and experience gained at the U.S. Naval Academy to work, but some skills were honed in the University of San Diego Master’s of Science in Global Leadership program. “I think bringing leadership into an international environment is so important,” she says.

Lesko founded the non-profit organization, Operation Think Pink, which is designed to improve educational opportunities for Iraqi women by sponsoring qualified candidates’ graduate studies at U.S. universities. Lesko says her experience in MSGL was inspiring.

“It crosses into social responsibility, business and ethics. The whole concept is very appealing,” she says.

She hopes USD can be a pilot supporter for Operation Think Pink, and that Iraqi women who pass a TOEFL test can then enroll in the 16-month MSGL program. The volunteer-run organization is seeking funds to defray the potential students’ costs.

Lesko has had many roles within the Multinational Force’s communications division. As chief media analyst for strategic communications, she organized a detailed Iraqi/Pan-Arab media database. As an admiral’s aide, Lesko attended press conferences involving top military and government officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Lesko has also worked with Iraqi government spokesmen to help the media promote a free press, giving journalists better access for stories beyond the daily body count.

“We all know what news sells,” Lesko says. “But what we try to do, at the strategic level, is focus on the good things that have some impetus for change.”

She has also worked with provincial reconstruction teams, military units providing security and reconstruction efforts in unstable areas, and recently handled a press conference with survivors from Fallujah.

“They are historical figures for modern-day Iraq,” Lesko says. “We wanted to show the value of their stories. For example, we’re talking about where they’re building agriculture, where they’re using government funding — their own funding — to support schools, educational systems, markets and women’s clinics. We try to be open and as transparent as possible, and have embedded reporters to get the real story.”

The longer the war goes on, the more motivated she is to make a difference. And for Lesko, that means impacting the lives of Iraqi women. Citing United Nations sources, she points out that nearly 3 million women are Iraqi widows. “You have to know there are a lot of strong, courageous women, and they’re hungry for change.”

Lesko hopes Operation Think Pink will provide that a positive impetus. “My ultimate goal is for it to reach out and provide a continuous avenue, even beyond when I’m here, so women have educational opportunities to be an integral part of society, especially an Arab culture, where they never really had a role or they’re just starting to gain that now.”

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