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Nobelist Malala, survivor of Taliban shooting, connects with audience at sold-out UB event

Malala Yousafzai settled in quickly inside the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena Tuesday evening, despite being far away from her native Pakistan and her newly adopted home of Birmingham, England.

The youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize first pointed to the Pakistani flag on stage next to the American flag.

"I am here to represent all of the Pakistani people who believe in peace, who believe in the power of education. I'm proud to represent them," she said.

Then, Yousafzai looked toward the large statue of a buffalo – another reminder of the Swat Valley region where she was born and where it was a tradition in her family, going back generations, to raise buffalo.

"My father's family had two buffalos, always. They still have them now," she said.

Yousafzai didn't need to find another reason to endear herself to a sold-out crowd of nearly 6,000 people inside the UB arena. Her inspirational life story – a teen-age activist who protested a Taliban ban on education for girls and survived a brutal point-blank shooting attack to the face – was more than enough to get admirers in the seats to listen.

But in the brief buffalo anecdote, she solidified a connection with the audience that continued for more than an hour.

In a decorative head scarf and cloak, she casually walked the stage side to side during opening remarks that lasted about 15 minutes. The rest of the time, she sat in a cushioned chair and answered a variety of questions -- such as whether her future plans include political aspirations and what qualities she admired in good leaders.

Liesl Folks, dean of UB's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, served as moderator, directing queries from audience members at microphones and from people who texted in questions.

Yousafzai, now 20, recently was accepted to Oxford University, and one audience member asked what she hoped to accomplish at the famed British institution, the alma mater of one of Yousafzai's role models, Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister who was killed in a 2007 terrorist attack.

Yousafzai said she planned to study PPE – philosophy, politics and economics. She also hoped to meet all kinds of new people "and learn from them," she said.

Yousafzai then turned the tables on the questioner, gesturing for her to come back to the microphone. "It's my first time going to university. I have no idea what it will be like. Do you have any advice for me?" she asked, to the delight of the crowd.

Yousafzai was a 10-year-old girl reading "Twilight" novels and happily attending the school her father, Ziaudddin, operated in the city of Mingora, when the Taliban arrived in Swat Valley. By age 11, she was being quoted in Pakistani and worldwide media objecting to Taliban attempts to keep girls from getting an education.

"To me, it was stopping me from achieving my dreams, from going forward in my life," she said.

On a bus ride home from school in 2012, a gunman shot Yousafzai in the left eye socket, nearly killing her. Two of her friends on the bus also were injured. The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack.

Instead of quieting Yousafzai, the attack only emboldened her.

"The Taliban made a big mistake. They wanted to silence me," she said. "Now I'm speaking globally for all girls."

Sarah Peryea brought her daughters Emma, 11, and Katelyn, 8, from Irondequoit, near Rochester, to be inspired to push for changes if something is happening that doesn't seem right, she said.

Peryea read Yousafzai's bestselling autobiography, "I Am Malala," this spring, and now both daughters are reading versions of the book for younger readers.

"I like how she stood up, even though she got badly injured. She stood up and wasn't fearful," said Emma, a sixth-grader. "I just like that she keeps going."

All across the arena, there were mothers and daughters amazed by Yousafzai's story of courage and resilience.

Kiara Shanks, an eighth-grade student at Hamburg Middle School, wrote a paper on Yousafzai for class two years ago.

The assignment was to write about an inspirational figure, and several of her classmates also chose Yousafzai, Kiara said.

Her mother, Kimberly, made sure to get tickets early because she knew interest in Yousafzai's speech would be high.

"She set an example for all of these kids that she believed in something and she wasn't going to back down," said Shanks.

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