Asma Rahimyar, a junior at Southern Connecticut State University, has been awarded the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship for her “outstanding potential for leadership, commitment to public service, and academic excellence.”
Awarded by the Washington, D.C.-based foundation named for the 33rd president of the United States, this highly competitive national scholarship was awarded to 62 outstanding students from 773 applicants nationwide and grants recipients up to $30,000 for graduate studies.
The first Truman Scholar in Southern history, and the first among the four Connecticut State Universities, Rahimyar has worked to promote equity, social justice, and inclusion both on and off campus. Post-higher education, she plans to take that courageous commitment worldwide, by practicing international human rights law.
The Truman Scholarship is the latest in a line of accolades for Rahimyar, who has excelled both in- and outside of the classroom at Southern. A Dean’s List student, she has received the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Research, a Diversity Scholar Excellence Award, a CSCU Scholarship, the Dr. Hilton C. Buley Scholarship, and the SCSU Top Owl Award for her commitment to social justice. She is also President of SCSU’s Muslim Student Association, a Writing Specialist/First Year Research Tutor at Southern’s Academic Success Center (who also facilitated the first series of bilingual literacy workshops for tutors), and a political science and philosophy major, minoring in English.
The first American-born daughter of parents who emigrated from Afghanistan, Rahimyar was raised in Trumbull and grew up listening to her parents’ stories of Kabul, documenting them in her journal.
“My parents’ stories of the joy and beauty of Kabul were juxtaposed with the reality of air strikes and war,” Rahimyar said. “Kabul has beauty but also tragedy, and it’s one world.”
As she became increasingly aware of the stark contrast between her parents’ idyllic descriptions and the reality of war-torn Afghanistan, she experienced a significant internal shift. She started writing in her journal in the first person, taking ownership of the stories. The more she listened, the more determined she became to understand the truth of her parents’ experience.
“I’ve grown up around stories of war time, and I decided I wanted to research the history and facts behind the stories,” she said. “Beyond the story, I wanted to know what my family had to endure.”
At Southern, Rahimyar’s journey was bolstered by political science and law courses, specifically International Relations, where her interest in the field grew alongside her belief that she could someday “be part of it” by devoting her career to combating “the many iterations of impunity.” Rahimyar’s experiences and courses ultimately informed her decision to pursue graduate studies in transitional justice — measures implemented in order to redress legacies of human rights abuses.
“Impunity corrodes the legitimacy of whichever legal system it permeates,” she said in her Truman Scholarship application. “As an Afghan-American, I have tracked its palpable manifestations post-Saur Revolution with an intrinsic passion (the overthrow of the Afghan government in 1978 led to the Soviet invasion of the country). When a nation’s most powerful are able to readily abuse the most vulnerable, the reverberations are felt in the halls of parliament and wracked households alike.”
Her goal, after she has earned her master’s and doctoral degrees, is to practice pro bono law within refugee and immigrant communities, while serving Afghanistan’s most vulnerable and working to improve the country’s system of legal education.
“Rahimyar is passionate about returning to Afghanistan in order to help build the rule of law she values so much in the United States,” Theresa Marchant-Shapiro, associate professor of political science and pre-law advisor at Southern, said. “Asma has been a leader in the Muslim Student Association, the Multicultural Leadership Council, and the Interfaith Council. Furthermore, she has used her leadership positions for service. She brought the World Hijab Day to Southern to allow all of us to share the experience of wearing a hijab. As a result, an increased number of Muslim women at Southern have felt comfortable expressing their faith by wearing a hijab.”
Rahimyar coordinated a special collaboration in November 2019 with Elena’s Light, a nonprofit organization that has provided at-home tutoring for local refugee and immigrant women since its inception three years ago, and helped bring 100 refugees from the New Haven community onto Southern’s campus to experience the American tradition of Thanksgiving.
Rahimyar’s favorite part of the meal came as she was reading aloud from a speech she had prepared. She realized she couldn’t hear her own voice over the laughter of children.
“Because of the work we had put in,” she said, “these children had five hours to be children. Where there is discordance, I will promote communication; where there is endurance, I seek to cultivate joy.”
“These efforts exemplify Asma’s focus on community inclusion,” Marchant-Shapiro said. “The work she has done at Southern portends a future in which she will make a difference in the world.”
It takes considerable courage to make a difference, especially in a country upended by war. To Rahimyar, “Courage is something I value, and I had to cultivate. My dad says courage looks like courage from the outside, but it’s often survival on the inside. We need to stare at what scares us in the face. If not me who undertakes this, then who?”
As for being awarded the scholarship, Rahimyar is both humble and full of gratitude.
“I’m filled with love for my parents and family,” Rahimyar said. “I wouldn’t be who I am without their support. I also want to express how much Southern means to me. Faculty, staff and students give you their all and invest in you as a human. I’ve been able to go to the United Nations, to explore the nuances of political theory, and to work with students as a tutor. I’m proud to represent Southern and my family, and I’m very grateful.
The Harry S. Truman Scholarship was named for President Truman, who wanted to support the next generation of public service leaders. It was created by Congress in 1975. Scholars are required to work in public service for three of seven years following completion of a Foundation- funded graduate degree program as a condition of receiving funding.