Teen activists aren’t often met with a pop star’s welcome, but Malala Yousafzai’s arrival can ignite a fever-pitched frenzy worthy of the Selenas and Biebers of the world. That celebrity effect is on display during a recent swing through Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There’s the young woman at the indoor food bazaar, who leaves Malala’s embrace in tears, and the teen refugee who cries so hard she can barely speak. Admirers gather for autographs and photos everywhere Malala goes (a suited security guard and small army of staff trail closely behind). At a local high school, throngs of teens rise and scream when she enters the stage. “I can’t believe I got to ask Malala a question!” one gushes in the hall outside.
The roaring reception is a testament to the power of Malala’s story: At 15, she was viciously attacked by the Taliban for daring to go to school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. She’s since emerged as the most visible champion of girls’ education worldwide. By 17, she had become the youngest person in history to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is 19 now and once again bringing her message of gender equality to the masses, this time through a high-wattage international tour. Lancaster, a small city that has earned a reputation for welcoming refugees from around the world, is stop number one on the just-launched Girl Power Trip, a four-continent, months-long travel blitz that will include her first visit to Latin America this summer.
The idea behind the tour is for Malala to spend her summer on the road meeting young women who can help her carry the mantle of girls’ education for the next fours years and beyond. That’s because, come this fall, the global activist is going to college, which means at the moment she is, understandably, a bit preoccupied with getting an education of her own.
That much is evident when we sit down to talk in a sparse career services classroom at Lancaster’s J.P. McCaskey High School. Her 5-foot-1 frame and gentle voice make for a softer, slightly shyer version of the powerful public speaker who has no problems calling out world leaders on their failure to act. She appears preternaturally calm, especially given the frenzied response to her surprise visit to town (a short time before, the school hallway was so congested that she couldn’t make it out to use the bathroom). But once she starts talking, it’s clear that there is one thing stressing Malala out at the moment: her homework. “People often forget that winning a Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t mean that you know much in your studies,” Malala insists. “I’m doing economics, maths, and literary studies. All of them are quite hard. I have my papers with me, in my bag.”
Despite speculation that she’d apply to Stanford, Malala has opted for Oxford, which is closer to her family’s adopted home in Birmingham, England. She wants to study philosophy, politics, and economics, a path that could help prepare her for her own lofty ambitions (she’s said before that she wants to be prime minister of Pakistan someday, following in the footsteps of her personal hero, the late Benazir Bhutto). But first, she needs to get in. Oxford extended a conditional offer to her, and in order to make it official, Malala still needs to ace her final assignments and tests. The April 11 trip to Lancaster falls in the middle of her senior spring break, and Malala is hard at work on no fewer than four papers, in between events like accepting a new major honor from United Nations and meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that is. (When I ask if she’s excited about Trudeau, a sheepish smile reveals the teen girl within: “Oh yeah.”)
Read more at Refinery29.