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Earlham College Graduate Becomes 1st Afghan To Receive Rhodes Scholarship


When Summia Tora heads to Oxford University in England this fall, she'll be making history - the first Rhodes Scholar from Afghanistan. Well, Tora just finished her undergraduate studies here in the U.S. at Earlham College in Indiana. Right before the pandemic shutdown, she helped organize an informal, in-person ceremony.


VI TRAN: Hey, guys. Welcome to minigrad (ph). Less than 24 hours ago, this started being planned. That's crazy, OK? Crazy.

KELLY: Summia Tora joins me now from her home in Virginia.

Hey there. Welcome.

SUMMIA TORA: Hi. How are you?

KELLY: Hi. I'm well. Thank you. I should start by saying congratulations. I'm told the official graduation was just this past weekend. I'm guessing, like every graduation, it was held virtually. Where were you?

TORA: Thank you so much. Yes, it was held virtually, and I was actually in Charlottesville, Va., with my cousin. So I tuned in virtually through Zoom.

KELLY: And what was that like?

TORA: It was sad, to be honest.

KELLY: Yeah.

TORA: I did not expect it to go that way. I was hoping that my mom and my dad would be there with me, and they're in Pakistan right now, quarantined. So that didn't happen. But I was still very grateful that regardless of the current situation, we all have finished our undergraduate and now are able to go do something in the world. Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, you certainly are. Just to fill people in a little bit on the remarkable life you've already led - you mentioned your parents. I know your family fled Afghanistan. You were refugees in Pakistan. You were able to make it to the U.S. to finish high school and then on, as we mentioned, to college in Indiana. What propels you now to Oxford in England?

TORA: The main reason why I applied to Rhodes scholarship to go study at Oxford was because they have one of the best refugee studies and forced migration program. And I'm particularly interested in working with displaced communities and specifically refugees in Pakistan and also internally displaced people in Afghanistan. And I found out about the Rhodes scholarship and the impact Rhodes scholars have made around the world, and that inspired me a lot. And that's why I eventually decided to apply for Rhodes, and I'm grateful that I was able to be awarded.

KELLY: I do want to ask because I read that, at first, you were somewhat reluctant to apply for the Rhodes, which is named, of course, for the man who endowed it, Cecil Rhodes, who believed in white supremacy and didn't want women or people of color to apply. What changed your mind about applying? And what would you want to tell him, I guess, if you could call him up today?

TORA: Yes. I was very reluctant to apply in the beginning, when my professors and my - some of my peers who encouraged me to apply for Rhodes scholarship, and part of the reason was the - well, the main reason itself was the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and how Rhodes scholarship came into being. And if you look into the history, historically, Rhodes scholarship was created for white men to come together and promote white imperialism around the world. And the thought of that made me very uncomfortable, me, myself, growing up as a refugee and a person of color. And eventually, when I learned about what actual Rhodes scholars in the present world have been doing to combat what Cecil Rhodes had stood for, I think that was the main reason why I decided to apply for Rhodes scholarship.

KELLY: Yeah. And just - we just have a few seconds left, but if you could - if he could see you today, what would you want him to know?

TORA: I'd want him to know that everything that he advocated for did not - everything that he believed or advocated for does not stand true, and there are many who are changing what he has - what he historically has done to exclude.

KELLY: Summia Tora, thank you.

TORA: Thank you.

KELLY: She'll be a Rhodes scholar this fall. Best of luck.

TORA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.