A little over a year ago, through the intercession of a remarkable and energetic young college student in Iowa, a 19 year old young woman from Afghanistan Skyped with me from Karachi, where she had gone at great peril to try and take the U.S. SAT exams.
The encounter changed my life, and hers as well.
Her brave story illustrates how much we, and the world stand to lose if we fall prey to the cowardly xenophobia that seems to be driving both the Trump administration, and much, but not all, of the Republican leadership in this country.
My new Afghan friend, who shall remain nameless here for her own safety, had had to leave school at age 11 because she was a girl. Not only was there pressure on her because of her gender, but she told me that even at that age her teachers had begun to leer at her.
Undaunted, thanks to the Internet and considerate parents, she managed to not only teach herself English, but also mathematics and physics. I am honored that my own books helped inspire her, with a dream to study astrophysics, which is why she was eager to talk to me in the first place.
From the moment we first spoke I was taken aback not only by the intelligence of her questions, but her determination to do what at the time seemed impossible: come to the US to study, perhaps with me.
The story of her eventual arrival in the US is long and convoluted, full of drama and tension, and at each stage I literally feared for her life. Many people helped, including Nick Kristof at the New York Times who agreed to devote a column to her. That which helped prompt numerous politicians and immigration lawyers around the country to help her. My own university, agreed to admit her and provide financial support if she could come to the US.
This fall, in one of the most surreal moments I can recall, I was able to welcome her to Phoenix, and watch this remarkable young woman begin to blossom.
Several days after her arrival here, I found a card she had left for me. Her thanks to me aside, her sentiments capture the true nature of why this country owes it to ourselves and the world not to shut out the hopeful, the hard working, and brightest young people who are only looking for a chance to thrive and contribute positively to their families and to the world:
“…Without your enormous help and support, now I would be married and increasing the world population (you saved the world from over population). Your kindness gave me the chance to add intellectually to the world. I immensely enjoy the freedom of being an independent, functioning human being…”
Since arriving at my University, my young friend has managed to place out of introductory calculus, and is doing independent study in mathematics and physics, and has been offered a summer research internship. This, and the fact that in the end she got an SAT score higher than the US average, for a young woman who taught herself English and has never been in a formal classroom after age 11 is simply remarkable.
What her story represents is what is best about the world: what is possible when enlightened ideas transcend biases and prejudices, cowardice, and ignorance. It also illustrates why the US has remained at the pinnacle of higher education and research for so many years. Because we can attract the best and brightest to our universities and our graduate schools, many of whom remain in this country to contribute to our intellectual vitality, and also our economic well-being. Those that return to their countries help export not just the knowledge they have gained, but also the ideals of free-speech and open inquiry which is at the hallmark not only of a thriving research environment, but a thriving democracy as well.
That the United States is not living up to the very standards of enlightened independence that this young woman from Afghanistan is displaying is nothing short of shameful. We have overcome dark periods in our history, the future will tell if the current era is viewed as such a time. But regardless, we can only hope that the spirit of this young woman, and so many like her will overcome the petty, and xenophobic egos that currently populate the White House, so that we thrive with the confidence that only a truly great nation has, and not retreat from the world with the insular suspicions that have traditionally characterized failing nations throughout history.