Southern Connecticut State University senior Asma Rahimyar has a history of breaking new ground. The 20-year-old Trumbull resident is the child of Afghan immigrants and was the first in her family born in the United States.
Now the political science and philosophy major has achieved another remarkable first -- she is Southern Connecticut State University’s first-ever Rhodes Scholar, one of the most prestigious academic awards in the world.
Rahimyar is one of just 32 students from the United States selected this year to receive full funding from the Rhodes Trust to pursue graduate studies at Oxford University.
“Everything that I am now and everything that I hope to be, I attribute to my parents and the way they raised me,” said Rahimyar, speaking on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live.
Rahimyar’s parents left Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of that country, which took place during the late ’70s and ’80s, and migrated to Pakistan as refugees due to the conflict. Later, the family immigrated to the United States, where Rahimyar grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Rahimyar said her family’s experience of displacement and migration has shaped her academic interests.
“Concepts such as war and development and peacebuilding -- they often seem quite macro-level, and, by extension, they often seem quite nebulous and impersonal. But for me, war, politics, international development -- the fields that I want to study -- they’ve all felt very personal.”
At Oxford, Rahimyar will pursue two master’s degrees, one in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and a second in Global Governance and Diplomacy. Ultimately, she said, she hopes to work on peacebuilding and transitional justice issues in countries like Afghanistan, as well as working with refugee and immigrant communities in the United States.
Rahimyar said her academic achievement is meaningful for her family, and particularly her mother, whose studies at university in Kabul were interrupted when the family migrated as refugees.
When Rahimyar first told her mother that she’d been named a Rhodes Scholar, she said there were “a lot of tears from both of our ends.” Rahimyar said her mother has always told her “to live out all of the things she couldn’t, and to make the most of the sacrifices that she made.” Seeing her mother’s face after she told her she’d been selected for the Rhodes “was a moment that I don’t think words could do justice,” Rahimyar said.
Rahimyar’s selection as a Rhodes Scholar is also historic for Southern Connecticut State University. The annual list of recipients is typically dominated by students from Ivy League schools. Rahimyar said that being a Rhodes Scholar from a state school, she feels the significance of this milestone for the entire Southern Connecticut State University community, which she said has “shaped me in a multitude of ways.”
And while the Rhodes is a first for the university, Rahimyar said she’s not unusual: “There are brilliant minds everywhere, irrespective of how well-known the institution is. I am not an anomaly for Southern.”
For now, Rahimyar is finishing out her studies at Southern Connecticut State University remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She plans to begin her studies at Oxford University in the fall of 2021.
Listen to the full interview with Asma Rahimyar on Where We Live.