As Asma Rahimyar prepares to conclude her senior year at Southern Connecticut State University, she’s already proven herself to be a trailblazer – but has her sights set on much more. Rahimyar, a daughter of Afghan refugees who lives in Trumbull, is the first Southern student ever to receive the illustrious Rhodes Scholarship, which will send her to the University of Oxford in England this coming fall. She is one of just 32 Americans chosen to receive the honor, from a pool of more than 2,300 applicants.
The Rhodes Scholarships are given to applicants who demonstrate outstanding academic achievements, character, commitment to others and to the common good, and the potential for leadership in their future careers, according to the Rhodes Trust. As she looks ahead to her next chapter, Rahimyar took some time to reflect on her family’s journey, and how it’s shaped her; as well as some of her local favorites and her ambitious goals for the future.
Q: How has being the daughter of Afghan refugees shaped how you view the world?
A: When you’re in a position that’s oftentimes paid a great deal of attention to – in this case, the refugee experience is often highlighted, whether it’s headlines that aren’t as holistic in their approach, or whether it’s well-intentioned individuals who seek to understand that experience better – it’s often an abstract, nebulous, and impersonal experience. Being a daughter of Afghan refugees, just being in that position, has put me in proximity of what this experience actually entails.
[Being the daughter of immigrants] also makes you very intentional about the way by which you move through this country. I consider that a gift, as difficult as it is – that intentionality extends to other parts of who I am as well.
It also makes you skeptical about institutions and the ways by which we’re currently doing things, but it makes you optimistic about the whole project. Cynicism isn’t really an option, as skeptical as you are about the methods, because people’s lives are at stake, and it’s not just an abstract demographic, it’s people that you live with, it’s you and it’s your community members.
Q: What was the process of becoming a Rhodes Scholar like?
A: I think my Rhodes experience was rather unconventional, for multiple different reasons, let alone that it all occurred virtually amidst a global pandemic. My university has never had a Rhodes Scholar before. To my knowledge, we haven’t had anyone apply for it, certainly not in recent history. We did not have an infrastructure in place for the Rhodes.
I was fortunate enough to have been a Truman Scholar early last year. After I won the Truman, I think it bolstered my confidence in feeling like I could aspire towards these really competitive opportunities. And now that I’d been through one and I saw it through the end, I had some experience that would help me navigate the challenges that come with not really having a precedent.
In the summer I reached out to one of my professors saying that I wanted to apply for the Rhodes. He reached out to a couple of other people and we formed a team and were basically learning about how to apply for the Rhodes as we go. I needed recommendations, there are two interviews, there’s your personal statement, and there’s much preparation that goes into those.
I feel so fortunate that I had a team that was willing to work with me, even if none of us were 100 percent sure about the logistics. Because there wasn’t a precedent, because we were creating it as we went along, I felt that this was an opportunity that I had really thought about
Q: What are your plans post-graduation, and your ambitions in Afghanistan?
A: After getting my master’s degrees at Oxford (I’m hoping to obtain two masters, one in criminology and one in foreign immigration and refugee studies), I’d like to come back to the States for law school. I may also get my doctorate as well. I’d like to practice international human rights law.
In Afghanistan, what makes it a fascinating case, even beyond the fact that it’s where my family’s from, is that it’s been in a period of transition for quite some time. We’ve had different regimes come in. How do we facilitate transitional justice? How do we facilitate that kind of thing without subsequently causing egregious human rights perpetrators to result in the ensuing governance? I feel so strongly about figuring out how do countries move forward, what do transitional governments look like? I’m also very interested in immigrant and refugee asylum law here in the United States.
Q: What is it like being a college student during a pandemic?
A: Usually these days, my day is being behind my laptop screen from 8 in the morning until 8 at night. The strange thing for me, I think, is not having the differentiation of space. Before, when I would have my classes and my extracurriculars and various other activities, I’m on campus in New Haven, and then I would be immersed in that community. Then I would come home to Trumbull, to my room, and I would do my homework and I’d connect with my family and do things like that. There was that clear differentiation of space, so I could sort of figure out, “Who is Asma outside of the various different things that she does?” I’ve always sort of struggled with that a little bit.
Now…I’m most often in this room, doing the things that I’m doing…it blurs those different aspects of who you are into just this one conglomerate that’s always working. That part of it has been difficult. And I really do miss being in New Haven. I miss my community at Southern and I miss the New Haven community more broadly.
Q: What’s your favorite way to spend a day in New Haven?
A: New Haven means a lot to me. It’s actually where my family story in the United States begins. New Haven was the first city that my dad came to when he arrived in the States, and then my mom and my two older brothers came afterward. That’s where it all began. And then my dad did his residency at Norwalk Hospital and that’s where he works now as a doctor.
I really enjoy just walking through downtown New Haven. I’m a huge walker; I like thinking while I’m walking. I particularly like going to Atticus Bookstore, roaming through the various different bookshelves. Just being around books is an inviting source of solace. A couple of friends and I go to Book Trader Cafe to study, or just to be surrounded by books. If you have a long day and you’re grappling with ideas, there’s a different kind of comfort when you’re actually surrounded by the physical presence of books. Those are two go-to places, for books and also for tea and coffee.
Another place I’ve been going to since I was really little is a pizza shop in New Haven called Aladdin. The owner is good friends with my dad and so I remember being a little girl and going there and then getting free desserts – being so little where my head would barely reach above the countertop. Even now, we still go there.
Q: What are you most looking forward to as you prepare for Oxford?
A: So many different emotions. There are definitely nerves. There’s also excitement. But I’ve found with anything in life that counts, there’s bound to be both. If your excitement feels as prominent, or a bit more prominent, than your nerves then you’re in a good place.
I’m very excited to be bringing all of what I am, as an individual but also the collective identities that I embody and the communities that have shaped me. To bring all of that to a place like Oxford is incredibly moving.
I’m just really excited to be at a place where people say history bleeds through the walls. I’m always so riveted towards history and I try to find places where I can feel its presence physically. And I think Oxford is one of the only places in the world where that physical presence is so palpable.
Of course, there are nerves. [I wonder] what will it mean to be me and all of what I am? Will there be times when I don’t immediately feel like I belong? And how will I contend with that? That fear is definitely there but I feel very strongly about persevering, not only in spite of those fears but because of them.