funny thing happened to Wajiha Rizvi on her way to law school at Southern Methodist University. She ended up in New Hampshire.
The 2007 UT Arlington honors graduate, who shared the stage with first lady Laura Bush as the student speaker at last year’s Graduation Celebration, planned to enter law school last fall. Then she got an invitation to assist Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She left Texas right after Labor Day.
“I really wanted to work for the campaign,” says Rizvi, who had no qualms about postponing law school for a semester. “But I had given up hope when the e-mail came inviting me to be an intern.”
She had worked in Washington, D.C., as a Bill Archer Fellow at the Center for American Progress in her senior year at UT Arlington - an “amazing experience,” she said, but it didn’t prepare her for what she would encounter in New Hampshire.
As the airplane began its descent and she saw acres and acres of farmland and no tall buildings, she knew she was in a far different place than North Texas. The full realization of how far she had strayed from home came when she hit the ground.
“I had never experienced prejudice before,” says Rizvi, who is a Muslim and wears a headscarf. “It was a scary couple of months.”
The campaign team she worked with was open and friendly, and she quickly bonded with a fellow Obama supporter. But many locals treated her with suspicion. One man followed her in the street until she stopped and faced him.
“Welcome to America,” the stranger hissed.
“I just smiled and said, ‘Thank you, but I was born here,’ “she recalled.
While encountering prejudice daily “takes a lot out of you,” Rizvi says the experience reinforced her conviction that working for Obama was the right thing for her. Despite the negatives, she gained respect for New Hampshire residents and their attitude toward their primary, which comes early in the election cycle.
She quickly learned that Granite State voters feel an obligation that extends beyond their borders. They make an effort to learn about the candidates and their stand on critical issues. Often the young Obama staffers were charged with explaining their candidate’s policies, and they frequently saw attitudes change.
No day was typical. Rizvi might work on a mailing, go door to door to deliver information, set up for a special event or do anything else that needed doing. She says she learned a lot, which may be her standard operating procedure.
“Wajiha is an amazing young woman and was a joy to have in the classroom,” history Professor Elisabeth Cawthon said. “Her dedication to learning was contagious. The other students couldn’t help being influenced by her quiet leadership.”
Rizvi impressed Dr. Cawthon in a class of more than 75 students as a conscientious learner who never missed class, did well on quizzes and was always prepared for questions on the readings.
“What I realized later was that Wajiha was much more than a well-prepared student. She was an intellectual,” Cawthon said, adding that Rizvi held a perfect grade-point average as a graduating senior while risking that status by taking challenging classes.
The more complex the topic, the more engaged Rizvi became.
“I recall one lively debate that erupted in class concerning the trial of abolitionist John Brown,” Cawthon said. “Was Brown a terrorist who deserved silencing because he was dangerous, not just to the slaveholders, but also arguably to the North? How could we as historians assess the extent to which Brown was feared by both his enemies and his allies?”
The professor pointed out that in a post-9/11 environment, it could not have been easy for Rizvi to argue about whether terrorism was a concept that existed in the 19th century.
“It was her willingness to step outside what was comfortable to learn, into what was messy to discuss, that I found admirable,” Cawthon said. “Wajiha is a true Maverick.”
— Sue Stevens
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