Earlham student 1st Rhodes Scholar from AfghanistanDecember 12, 2019
By The Associated Press
RICHMOND — Summia Tora deems herself "lucky" and "privileged" given her circumstances. When you take into consideration what Tora has endured and where she has been, you might agree.
Before Tora's birth, she said her father was imprisoned for rebelling against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. When she was a newborn, her family fled from its native country of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and Tora's life has long been marked by injustice. Tora and her family, as Afghan refugees, enjoyed a fraction of the same rights as citizens of Pakistan, including the pursuit of education beyond high school.
"I knew that my chances of pursuing higher education were not possible in Pakistan," Tora said. "That was something that motivated me to look for opportunities to go out somewhere where I would not be judged based on my nationality but my merit."
Tora's father has since returned to Afghanistan for work, as refugees are not legally allowed to work in Pakistan, she said. Her parents have lived separately for years in sacrifice of the education of Tora and her siblings.
"They (Tora's parents) wanted to ensure that we are able to go to a good school where we are able to learn English and have access to the rest of the world," Tora said.
This access to education and the rest of the world led Tora to the United States by way of a full scholarship to study at the United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico at 16 years old for her final two years of high school.
Soon after, Earlham College's Quaker values of peace, justice and community resonated with Tora and gave her the platform to not only learn more about factors that threatened her safety and education as a child, but how to enact change.
Now a senior at Earlham double majoring in Economics and Peace & Global Studies, Tora has impacted the lives of many who have also experienced forced migration.
In the summer of 2017, Tora worked closely with Congolese and Afghan refugees seeking a new life in Indiana after securing funding from Earlham in support of an internship at Exodus Refugee Immigration in Indianapolis. Tora also spent a semester in Athens, Greece gaining experience with Doctors of the World — an international human rights organization that provides emergency and long-term medical care to refugees and other vulnerable populations — during her junior year at Earlham providing translation services.
It was initiatives like these, along with her unique background and academic success, that allowed the Earlham senior to make history.
Tora has earned the oldest and one of the most celebrated academic awards worldwide: The Rhodes Scholarship. The Rhodes funds up to three years of graduate level coursework at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, which Tora will begin in the fall of 2020.
32 students from the United States are selected each year as Rhodes Scholars, but Tora was one of just two Global Rhodes Scholars awarded this year. Not only is Tora the first woman from Earlham to be awarded the scholarship, but she is also the first student from Afghanistan to do so.
Tora was admittedly hesitant to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship due to the legacy of the award's namesake: Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was a British businessman who is known as one of the most committed imperialists of the 19th century. A statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town was taken down in 2015 after a protest movement by the name of "Rhodes Must Fall" and was seen as "a surviving symbol of white minority rule."
"Cecil Rhodes did not want anyone who looks like me, a person of color and a woman, to be a part of the Rhodes Scholarship," Tora said. "I was very conflicted in terms of applying but eventually I read a lot about the Rhodes Scholarship and I realized that a lot of people who have gone on to pursue the Rhodes have worked to change what Cecil Rhodes stood for."
At the scholarship's inception in 1902, the award was only open to men from the British colonies, Germany and the United States. It wasn't until 1978 that the program began including women and more recently has been extended to include students from around the globe.
One former winner served as a particular inspiration to Tora. Alain Locke was the first African-American Rhodes Scholar and is heralded as the "Father of the Harlem Renaissance." Locke is known for promoting African-American artists and writers and encouraging them to look to Africa for artistic, cultural and scientific innovation.
"That spoke to me a lot," Tora said. "People like Alain and other people within the Rhodes Scholarship who are doing things like Alain are the main reason I decided to apply."
After returning to the United States last week after successfully interviewing in the United Kingdom for the Rhodes, Tora said she can't say for sure what endeared her to the committee, but believes it had to do with her simply being herself. Tora said she believes her honesty in why she wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar, which is inspired by her parents' sacrifices, is ultimately what led her to be selected.
Competing against other candidates from Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and others, Tora was in disbelief at the news of her selection.
"It was surprising for me and a bit unbelievable why they chose me," Tora said. "But at the end of the day, it made me realize something I already I knew: The prestige of the school should not be the factor in deciding who is capable or equipped to do something. It should be based on your character and your commitment to serving others."
While at Oxford, Tora plans to complete two master's programs: One in refugee studies of forced migration, and another in social entrepreneurship. In addition to her studies, Tora intends on expanding a project she has started called the "Dosti" initiative, which means friendship in Urdu. Dosti connects girls from Afghanistan and Pakistan with access to sanitary pads for menstruation.
Tora said people are so oriented with having a conventional job, a conventional life and simply thinking of how one can survive. Looking beyond one's own survival to positively impact others is something Tora hopes she can help influence others to do.
"I hope that my ability to become a Rhodes Scholar allows other students who come from similar backgrounds as me and developing countries to be encouraged to pursue their passion, serve their communities and be able to do great things," Tora said. "I hope that's one thing my story can inspire people to believe in, that it's possible to do."
Tora is the second Earlham student in three years to earn a Rhodes Scholarship after Hashem Abu Sham'a did so in 2016.
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