As the saying goes, “it took a village” to get Shukria Rezayi ’27 from her home in Afghanistan to the University of Lynchburg for the Fall 2023 semester. But if you ask Alissa Keith ’14 MA, she’ll tell you it took “a thousand little miracles.”
Rezayi, a first-year student from Kabul, was helped along the way by a host of people — known and unknown — including Keith, who is an English instructor at Lynchburg.
Keith is mentoring Rezayi — not her real name, due to personal security concerns — through Girls College, a “not-for-profit educational initiative founded to offer free quality education to high school female students throughout Afghanistan.” They first met virtually in January 2023, when they were paired up by the organization.
“They had the idea, once the Taliban said, ‘No university education for women,’ to see if they can get American mentors to help these girls write their essays and fill out their applications,” Keith said of the organization.
“And they said, ‘If you have any strings you can pull from anywhere, pull them.’”
Rezayi sent Keith some essays she had written and Keith was immediately impressed by her writing skills and academic ability. She also was moved by Rezayi’s story, which included narrowly escaping a November 2022 terrorist bomb attack that killed or injured dozens of female students at a college preparatory school she attended.
“That day, I was late,” Rezayi said recently, adding that when her bus finally arrived at the school that day, “people were screaming and running,” while Taliban fighters stood by, laughing.
Keith was determined to do all she could to help Rezayi come to the U.S. for college. “Her academic ability in writing was so high that I wasn’t concerned if she would succeed in an American college,” she said. “We worked through the essays, we met one time on a video call through WhatsApp, and I helped her fill out the Common App. Then, I began calling colleges.”
Keith called many of the smaller colleges in Virginia that offered open enrollment and a pre-med program. Many were willing to accept Rezayi, who wants to be a physician, but paying for it was another question.
In the end, the University of Lynchburg came through, offering Rezayi a Global Presidential Scholarship and the Rachel Yehuda Shems Memorial Scholarship. For the latter, which the late Dr. Estherina Shems ’54, ’09 DSc created in honor of her mother, preference is given to, among other things, international pre-med students.
“When Alissa first told me about [Rezayi], I couldn’t believe our luck — that we had one fund that fit her situation so precisely,” said Sarah Rhodes, Lynchburg’s director of donor relations. “I’m sure Dr. Shems would have been very pleased and proud.”
Shems majored in biology at Lynchburg and was awarded an honorary doctorate of science. In June of this year, the University received a $381,485.66 bequest from her estate to bolster the corpus of the fund.
Rezayi’s desire to become a physician was sparked by the lack of female doctors and the overall lack of access to health care she saw in Afghanistan. Her dream is to build a hospital in her home country someday.
“I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was 9 or 10,” she said. “I didn’t think of anything other than being a doctor. I want to be a surgeon, a brain surgeon.”
By summertime, Rezayi had been accepted to the University and had secured the much-needed scholarships, but she didn’t have the visa she’d need to travel from Afghanistan to the U.S. To make matters worse, the U.S. no longer had an embassy in Afghanistan, so she’d have to travel to Pakistan. This required a few more “miracles.”
A friend of Keith’s had an immigration lawyer look over the I-20 form Rezayi would need to study in the U.S. Keith also worked with Lynchburg admissions counselor Heath Pierce ’21 to make sure Rezayi’s paperwork was in order.
An anonymous donor covered the nearly $2,000 it would cost for Rezayi and her father to fly to Karachi, Pakistan. Another provided lodging there. Yet another anonymous benefactor started a GoFundMe. Rezayi’s father even offered to sell a kidney to cover expenses, but luckily he didn’t have to resort to that.
In Lynchburg, Keith helped secure off-campus housing for Rezayi with a family who has a heart for helping immigrants in need.
Even with all this help, getting a visa was not a foregone conclusion. As Rezayi’s July 25 visa interview approached, Keith was worried that everything might screech to a halt. “From what I understand, it will be a miracle if she gets her … student visa,” Keith wrote to a Lynchburg staff member via email. “Almost everyone is denied.”
On July 31, however, Keith’s anxieties were replaced with joy when she got news that Rezayi had gotten her visa and would be coming to Lynchburg. “It is a miracle and I’m so excited,” Keith said.
She added later, “Probably 50 or more people … each had a tiny part, and they probably don’t feel like they did a lot because they didn’t do the whole thing, but without each doing their little part, she wouldn’t be here. It was a thousand little miracles.”
After a 30-hour series of flights — “We joke that she had the longest Thursday ever,” Keith said — Rezayi arrived in Lynchburg about two weeks before classes started on Aug. 25. Her fall schedule includes, among other things, basic biology and chemistry, a drawing class, and English, taught by Keith.
Education is very important to Rezayi’s parents, both of whom have master’s degrees. Rezayi says it’s especially important to her mother, who always told her, “Education is the most important key to success and having a better life. If you have an education, you have a better personality, a better life for the future, everything you want.”
At Lynchburg, Rezayi not only plans to fulfill her parents’ wish that she attend college, she also wants to learn new things — bicycling and running, in particular — that weren’t easily accessible to girls in Afghanistan.
“It’s learning and studying, attending the classes, and being in a place that I didn’t know before,” she said. “Meeting new people … and learning about the culture and beliefs that they have. Everything.”