Summia Tora named first Rhodes Scholar from Afghanistan

An Earlham College senior double majoring in Economics and Peace & Global Studies has earned the Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world’s most prestigious academic awards. The Rhodes funds up to three years of graduate level coursework at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, beginning in fall 2020.

Summia Tora, a native of Afghanistan, is just the latest global scholar to emerge from Earlham, building upon the College’s reputation as a leader in the liberal arts and sciences for its commitment to peace, justice, and global understanding. Tora is the first woman from Earlham and the first student from Afghanistan to be awarded the scholarship. She is the second Earlham student in three years to earn a Rhodes Scholarship.

“As soon as I learned that I was selected for this award, I messaged all of my professors and family because I truly believe that this has not just been awarded to me, but it’s been awarded to everyone who has supported me,” Tora says. “I don’t think I would have been able to do it if I didn’t get all of the support from my professors and my peers.

“I think what helped me stand out among other applicants is that we make time in the classroom to openly share what we are thinking about, but also critically think about a lot of issues we see in the world,” she says. “It really taught me the importance of listening, but also being able to talk about things from multiple perspectives without getting comfortable with any one way of thinking.”

Tora plans to pursue coursework in refugee studies, forced migration studies, and social entrepreneurship while in Oxford. Her focus will be on scholarship related to internally displaced people in Afghanistan but also refugees in Pakistan and different parts of the world.

Tora’s academic pursuits in Oxford will build upon her Earlham education and her own life’s experiences. When she was a child, she fled to Pakistan with her family to escape violence and other economic factors threatening their safety. Most of her formal education was in Pakistan, but she received a scholarship to study at the United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico, for the final two years of high school. As a UWC student, she advocated for refugees seeking asylum in the United States by spreading awareness about the conditions of undocumented immigrants living in detention centers.

When she arrived at Earlham in 2016, her coursework and co-curricular pursuits helped her gain a more sophisticated understanding of the factors that contributed to forced migration in locations around the world.

In the summer of her first year, she earned funding from Earlham in support of an internship at Exodus Refugee Immigration in Indianapolis, and worked closely with Congolese and Afghan refugees seeking a new life in Indiana. During her third year at Earlham, she spent a semester abroad in Athens, Greece, and gained further experience providing translation services for Doctors of the World, an international human rights organization that provides emergency and long-term medical care to refugees and other vulnerable populations. Later on Earlham’s campus, Tora and other Earlham students conducted a fundraiser for refugee families that she had met at a solidarity shelter during her time in Greece.

“It was a form of reliving my own experience, but also realizing that I had some form of privilege in the way that I was living my life as a refugee,” Tora says of her internship and experiences in Greece. “I’ve wanted to give back, because I know what this hardship is like.”

On Earlham’s campus, Tora benefited from a liberal arts curriculum that exposed her to coursework beyond her two majors, resulting in mentorship from faculty in the departments of Economics, Peace & Global Studies, African & African American Studies, History, English, and Global Management. Similarly, she worked extensively with interdisciplinary teams of students on a number of entrepreneurial projects that broadened the scope of her interest in refugee studies. She also worked more broadly with the entire student body as co-president of Earlham Student Government for 2018.

In 2018 and 2019, she worked with four students to establish the Mashinani Farmers Initiative, a social venture aiming to partner with small-scale farmers in Kenya to address poor farm yields and a shortage of food. The team won first place in the 2018 Earlham Prize for Creative Capitalism, earning $20,000 in seed money to advance that venture’s work. The team also competed twice in the Hult Prize, the world’s largest student social entrepreneurship competition, and earned a second-place finish in a 2019 regional event.

In 2019, she also earned funding from the Davis Projects for Peace program to launch the Dosti Initiative, a collaboration with Maida Raza ’22 that provided workshops about menstrual education for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“I’m thrilled that Summia was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship,” says Jonathan Diskin, Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Earlham Center for Social Justice. “But all of us who know and work with Summia are not surprised.  She is deeply committed to and informed about her focus on issues of displacement and I think all her interviewers recognized that. Her character, commitment and intelligence shine through in every interaction.”

Hashem Abu Sham’a, a 2017 Earlham graduate and the College’s last Rhodes Scholar was one of the first two awardees from the State of Palestine as part of the inaugural Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine program. George E. Hamilton, Class of 1905, and Joseph Clyde Little, Class of 1917, also were Earlham Rhodes Scholars.

Four Peace & Global Studies students dressed up on a recent Saturday afternoon to simulate a hard-hitting mock interview for Tora, according to Joanna Swanger, Director of Earlham’s Peace & Global Studies program.

“I never doubted her ability, as she has been a dedicated and conscientious student of Peace & Global Studies and of Economics, and she has already demonstrated her talents in peacebuilding and governance,” Swanger says. “Both Summia and Hashem are bringing important questions of justice to bear on the work of peacebuilding and leadership, through directly confronting and challenging legacies of racism and colonialism.  I congratulate Summia on this marvelous accomplishment.”

Rhodes Scholars are chosen on the basis of exceptional intellect, character, leadership and commitment to service. It is one of the most prestigious academic awards in the English-speaking world, and one that broadened its reach in recent decades. At its founding in 1902, the award was only open to men from the British colonies, Germany and the United States. The program began including women in 1978 and, in recent years, has been extended even further to include students from around the world.

About 100 students are now chosen for Rhodes Scholars annually. Tora was one of just two Rhodes Scholars chosen in her region as part of the Global Scholars program, which debuted in 2018. About 600 students from 50 different countries participated in the application process, and students from 12 different countries were finalists, she says.

Now Tora is planning for her next steps as she prepares to join other Rhodes luminaries, a list that includes former Secretary of State Dean Rusk; South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright; philosopher Naomi Wolf; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker; and Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Feed The Children.

“I have been awarded a scholarship that is a reminder not only of this world’s colonial past but also the social injustices,” Tora says. “My hope is to use the education I gain at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to address such issues in our present world.

“I want to work with people on the ground and mobilize social movements by taking a grassroots approach and addressing real issues within communities, working side-by-side people and making them actual contributors in society that take positions and make a difference.”

Additional faculty support for Summia Tora

“I was delighted when I heard of Summia’s success. At Earlham, Summia has worked with focus and purpose both inside and outside the classroom, and the Rhodes is a fitting reward for her efforts. That it is Earlham’s second Rhodes in three years suggests that we can make it a habit!”

 —   Rajaram Krishnan, Professor of Economics

“My immediate reaction other than being so happy for her is that it shows how much the liberal arts matter. As a PAGS major, Summia has studied the core humanistic disciplines — Philosophy, Sociology, History, and Economics among many others — and the Rhodes committee clearly saw the value in that. Summia’s success shows the importance of our core, long-standing liberal arts mission.”

—   Ryan Murphy, Associate Professor of History

“At Earlham I have been very impressed with Summia’s quite-yet-persistent moral force of character, and her unyielding concern for the condition of world. On our campus, if you have ever spoken with her, you will notice that she embodies a serious human encounter with life-affirming truth, courage, kindness, devotion, as well as a deep humanity tied to her leadership instincts. These virtues are all highly consistent with the attributes of Rhodes Scholars the world over.

“Summia is a gift, and I am so pleased for her, her family, her nation of Afghanistan, and beyond. She, alongside other gifted ones from her generation, will guide the hopeful future of this world.”

—  James Logan, Associate Academic Dean; Professor of Religion;
Professor and Director of African & African American Studies

“Summia’s intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service made her a natural candidate for the Rhodes. Summia has discovered who the world needs her to be. It’s an honor, and humbling, to be a part of that process for any student, regardless of where their education takes them.”

—   Nate Eastman, Associate Professor of English

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We continue to monitor the effects of an industrial fire 1.1 miles from campus.
We continue to monitor the effects of an industrial fire 1.1 miles from campus.