Summia Tora became the first person from Afghanistan to win the highly prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and is one of the world’s top 102 students in the 2020 class.
Tora is in her final semester at Earlham College, a liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana. She grew up as a refugee living in neighboring Pakistan, residing in a single bedroom in a house along with four other families inside of which she could hear sounds of drone landings in nearby Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. Tora and her family fled Afghanistan because of the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, but Tora was thankful to be in Pakistan because she was able to attend school.
Tora promised herself she would take her education seriously after an older girl told her about pretending to be a boy so that she could go to school in Kabul when she was six years old in 2002. Female literacy rates in Afghanistan are among the lowest in the world at only 17 percent with a high variation that indicates significant geographical and gender divides, according to UNESCO.
In 2014, the summer the Tora left Pakistan to come to the United States, there was a bombing in Peshawar that killed 139 students. She won a place in a high school in New Mexico through the United World Colleges (UWC) which connects international students to schools across the world.
Tora excelled at Earlham College where she co-founded Dosti Initiative, which connects Afghan and Pakistani girls through the making of reusable sanitary pads. She is also one of the founding members of Mashinani Farmer’s Initiative, which helps farmers in Kenya gain access to sustainable farming methods.
She admits her early trepidation about applying to Rhodes due to its legacy of imperialism. Originally intended to foster close relationships between the United States and Great Britain, it used to be only open to men from the United States, Germany, and the Commonwealth. Tora realized, however, she shouldn’t run away from its colonialist history. “It’s people like us who need to change [the Rhodes legacy],” she says.
After completing her post-graduate coursework on refugee and migrant movements, Tora plans to return home to Afghanistan.
Sources: BBC News, 2/10/20; Rhodes Trust, 2019; UNESCO, 2017.