Shirin Tahir-Kheli ’61, a national security advisor to three U.S. presidents, first made the 7,062-mile journey from Peshawar to Delaware via train, plane, and Greyhound bus at the age of just 15.
Born in the south-central Indian city of Hyderabad before the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947, she was the daughter of prominent physicist and scholar Dr. Raziuddin Siddiqui. Her father was called upon by leaders of the newly independent Pakistan to lead the development of its higher education system, and the family relocated to Peshawar in northwest Pakistan in the shadow on the Khyber Pass.
At the University of Peshawar, her father set up a U.S.-Pakistan university faculty exchange with Colorado State University. A visiting professor from CSU previously had taught at Ohio Wesleyan and suggested OWU for the young Tahir-Kheli while the family also was considering Columbia University in New York.
Tahir-Kheli devotes most of a chapter in her 2018 book, Before the Age of Prejudice: A Muslim Woman’s National Security Work With Three American Presidents, to her time at OWU.
“My time in Delaware, Ohio, covered an era where the only possible contact with my family back in Pakistan was through the weekly letter. Yet surprisingly, I did not feel isolated in Middle America,” she writes in the book.
“Friendship and understanding seemed to soften any loneliness that might have been natural in a very young Muslim girl’s transplantation from the frontier town of Peshawar in Pakistan to the bucolic meadows circled by the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers in Delaware, Ohio. Obviously one of the very few female ‘foreign’ students in the Delaware, Ohio, of the day, I found my fellow students, teachers, and the townspeople curious about me. However, their curiosity contained no hostility; instead, it aimed at the novelty of a different religion or culture that I clearly represented.”
After graduating from OWU in two years, Tahir-Kheli earned a master’s and Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania before embarking on a highly distinguished career as a political scientist and diplomat. She served as a member of the National Security Advisor staff and in the State Department, working in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
She was appointed as the first ambassador for women’s empowerment by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, making her the first American Muslim ambassador when she was sworn in under President Bush in 1990. She then served as senior advisor to the secretary of state on United Nations reform. She later served for two years on White House National Security Council under the second President Bush.
Her graduation from OWU nearly was derailed by the swimming pool. Just a couple of months before her scheduled June 1961 graduation, she was called to her counselor’s office to review a checklist of graduation requirements. Passing a swimming test was on the list, and she’d never learned to swim. Another international student was enlisted to tutor her through a splash crash course, and six weeks later, she graduated on schedule.
Now retired and living in the Philadelphia area, Tahir-Kheli says she continues to extol the virtues of Ohio Wesleyan and a great liberal arts education at every chance. She has taken to citing Ohio when asked about her origin. “I landed first in Ohio, so I consider I’m from Ohio,” she says.
Ohio Wesleyan, “gives you that sense of belonging,” she says, “which is important for nurturing and so on. And I think that’s probably why a lot of South Asians from half a world away come. Because it’s a place where you get a serious education, but it’s also a place where you just are nurtured. It’s a special place.”