As Asma Rahimyar graduated from Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) last month, she left her indelible mark as the first Rhodes Scholar in both the history of the university and Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system.
Rahimyar was awarded the illustrious Rhodes Scholarship — one of the one most prestigious academic scholarships in the world. She was one of only 32 Americans and only Connecticut resident chosen for her outstanding intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service among more than 2,300 applicants. In 2020, she won the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship for her outstanding potential for leadership, commitment to public service, and academic excellence— also a first for SCSU and CSCU.
“To be the first in Southern’s history to win this award means commemorating the belief vested by those who have shaped me, as thoughtfully as I know how,” said Rahimyar. “I also hope it means reminding our students that they are, and always will be, so worthy of being seen. “
SCSU President Joe Bertolino said the Rhodes Scholarship is a source of great pride for SCSU and all those who have supported Rahimyar throughout her “journey of great accomplishment,” noting that Rhodes Scholars are typically recipients from Ivy League schools and other “elite” institutions across the nation.
“Being named a Rhodes Scholar is a tribute to her outstanding qualities as a student and her passion for human rights,” he said. “And it is also testimony to the mission of empowerment and opportunity that we pursue at Southern, through a deep and enduring commitment to social justice.”
Patricia Olney, SCSU political science professor and Rahimyar’s primary academic adviser, said that as Rahimyar catapulted to international fame, she brought the reputation of SCSU with her, gifting the university with its shining moment.
“Asma has singlehandedly elevated the university, the state university system, and even the state by demonstrating that even the most prestigious awards and most ambitious goals are accessible in a state university setting,” said Olney. “Few places focus on undergraduates as SCSU does — at SCSU we can take a student where their potential allows.”
In meeting Rahimyar, CSCU Interim President Jane Gates was impressed. “In a brief conversation with Asma at Southern Connecticut State University, I immediately saw the traits of persistence, discipline, academic excellence, leadership, and evidence of her dedication to and passion for intellectual challenges of human rights work that led to her selection as a prestigious Rhodes Scholar,” she said. “The world will be stronger because of Asma's commitment to making the world a better place for all of us.”
Rahimyar, a Trumbull resident, is the daughter of Afghan immigrants and the first person in her family to be born in the United States after her parents left Afghanistan fleeing conflict. She graduated from SCSU with a double baccalaureate degree in political science and philosophy, and a minor in English literature.
“New Haven is where my family’s story in the United States begins, and to have spent the past several years studying, aspiring, and persevering in this city — alongside students whose stories typify the best of what our country could be — is to know what it takes to fulfill the sort of hope borne from sacrifice,” said Rahimyar.
In choosing SCSU for her undergraduate studies, she found a community that she is better for knowing. Rahimyar said that as a student, she was proud to represent her family, the university and community.
“I operate just as much from my heart as I do my head, and it is at Southern that I have foregrounded their simultaneity. The extent of our aspirations is not contingent upon circumstance, but my community at Southern exemplifies the sheer willpower that goes into trying to ensure their realization is not; thus, my four years here have taught me – head, heart, and all – how to keep my feet on the ground and my eyes riveted towards the stars,” said Rahimyar.
At Oxford, Rahimyar will continue to shoot for the stars and intends to pursue dual master’s degrees in criminology and forced migration and refugee studies. “I’m especially interested in the intersection between them in so far as narratives of vulnerability, culpability, and accountability systematically disadvantage the most vulnerable whilst shrouding the already powerful in impunity,” said Rahimyar.
“I’m especially excited to advance my understanding of the law, the context within which both programs are situated. In addition to piquing my interests as a political scientist, a philosopher, and a lover of intricate texts, law provides me the opportunity to work on issues within transitional justice, as well as the ability to mitigate codified barriers encountered by asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants,” she said.
But Rahimyar does not intend to stop at Oxford. She hopes to return to the United States to earn a JD/Ph.D. — likely at Yale University — and practice international human rights law, with the goal of advocating for the rights of refugees and immigrants.
“I will be returning to the States for further studies and am interested in the prospect of attaining a joint J.D./Ph.D. because I’m drawn towards both the immediate, concrete change one can effectuate as a lawyer and the macro-level, academic puzzles one can engage with as a legal scholar,” she said. “I am especially compelled by international human rights law as well as immigration and asylum law. I’m excited to direct my academic passions within both realms towards challenging barriers to global justice.”
Rahimyar said that being first to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship in SCSU’s history was a process that required her to work with her adviser and a team of professors to create both the logistical and emotional infrastructure she required. Her success, Olney said, was a community effort, as faculty and staff volunteered their time to help Rahimyar be successful.
As well as Olney, she credits Dr. Trudy Milburn, the liaison to the Rhodes Foundation, for carefully fielded her many questions and Dr. Kevin Buterbaugh, who coordinated practice interviews as part of both her Truman and Rhodes processes, sharing every resource he found with her. Dr. Audrey Kerr, said Rahimyar, made her pause to breathe.
Olney also directed Rahimyar’s Honors Thesis about the history of a part of Afghanistan that experienced — what Rahimyar believes — was genocide during the period of Soviet occupation. SCSU Computer Science faculty and staff Dr. Hroje Podnar and Robert Cuddihee taught her to create database programs to track confidential human rights data and generate maps to illustrate her findings.
She someday hopes her findings could be used in her search for justice for genocide survivors in Afghanistan, hoping for a Truth Commission that will put their history on record. She also aims to develop an English language and self-translated monograph in Dari that tells the story of what happened in the villages she studied to be published in both the United States and Afghanistan.
So as Rahimyar moves on, she also leaves quite a legacy in SCSU’s political science department. Olney said Rahimyar had a perfect grade in every course she took, finished with a 4.0 GPA, she took on every competitive external opportunity brought to her attention.
She won the Valedictorian Award for the highest GPA and the Excellence in Political Science award. Her First Year Experience project about how immigrant students perceive success differently than their peers, won the Provost's Award for Excellence in Research. She represented SCSU at the Yale Undergraduate International Policy Competition and the Annual Conference on International Diplomacy at the United Nations and earned a summer research grant to reconstruct the history of two Afghan villages suffering wartime abuses during the 1970s Soviet invasion. As an intern at Elena’s Light, a nonprofit that helps female refugees, she was a grants writer and recently submitted a $135,000 grant. She also organized SCSU’s first Refugee Thanksgiving with the organization. This spring, she also won the 2021 Barnard Distinguished Student Award.
In addition, her extracurricular involvement mirrored the causes in which she was drawn. Rahimyar was president of the Muslim Student Association, and president of Omicron Delta Kappa and Pi Sigma Alpha honor societies. She tutored writing, philosophy, political science, and first year research at SCSU’s Academic Success Center, and served as a Student Government Association representative-at-large where she testified on the impact of tuition hikes in front of the state Legislature. She was associate editor for the pre-law student journal, and member of SCSU’s Interfaith and Multicultural Leadership.
Olney believes that with Rahimyar’s gift for writing, she will continue to champion international human rights causes and be an advocate for the rights of refugees and immigrants. She feels strongly that Rahimyar will capture the attention of large audiences to effect change.
“I believe she may end up having the legal credentials to influence policy and will be a force to be reckoned with,” said Olney. “She takes calculated risks, and we have been through some roller coasters that ultimately worked out, but I believe in her. She is amazing and will go very far.”