Mathey Senior Wafa Zaka win's Rhodes Scholarship

Tuesday, Nov 23, 2021

Zaka, of Lahore, Pakistan, is concentrating in politics and is also pursuing a certificate in history and practice of diplomacy. At Oxford, Zaka will pursue an MSt in Global and Imperial History and an MSc in Modern South Asian Studies. She is a member of Mathey College.

In her academic work, Zaka has delved deep into world history with a focus on Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Her interest in this area was sparked in one of her courses at Princeton, when a Bangladeshi student presented on the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh. In her Rhodes application, she wrote, “My high school textbook [in Pakistan] summarized the entire war into two paragraphs, but I had done independent reading on the topic … Still, as my class fellow spoke about the experiences of Bangladeshis, I felt I had not fully grasped the importance of those events.”

This experience spurred Zaka to embark a research project on the perceptions of the 1971 war among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and their diasporic communities, conducting dozens of interviews to study the impact of statist narratives on how people look back on the war.

Her senior thesis is about ungoverned spaces in Pakistan, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Area. “To understand state capacity and nation-building process, I will be analyzing the efforts at integration by the Pakistani state and why these efforts were ineffectual in some of these areas,” she said.

“Wafa is the kind of student we love to teach; smart, curious and thoughtful about the significance of what she is learning,” said Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, who established Princeton’s Global History Lab.

Zaka took Adelman’s course “A History of the World,” then joined the Global History Lab’s History Dialogues Project, which builds upon the work of “A History of the World” and provides students with training in additional historical research methods to embark on independent research projects.

“Wafa was an important voice in my ‘History of the World’ course, committed to sharing her knowledge and raising the level of our debates,” Adelman said. “After that, she joined the History Dialogues project in the middle of the pandemic and conducted pioneering oral histories of South Asia’s long history of decolonization. She is going to make remarkable and important contributions to global knowledge.”

Zaka also created the History Dialogues Coronavirus Archive with the Global History Lab. She said the pandemic heightened her awareness of the immense inequalities in society. “I observed the mainstream coverage of the pandemic to see the kind of systems of knowledge we are producing in these historic times. I was thrilled to build this archive to document pandemic experiences that explain the virus’s diverse implications and include voices generally excluded and historically marginalized.”

In fall 2020, when she was studying remotely from Pakistan, she took a journalism course on migration with Ferris Professor of Journalism Deborah Amos and found another medium to capture marginalized voices, writing several pieces about Afghan refugees’ unique experiences in Pakistan during COVID-19.

Her international experience at Princeton also included a Princeton International Internship (virtually) with the Russian International Affairs Council.

She has served as a researcher for Princeton’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Lab, coding and archiving more than 200 disinformation stories about COVID-19 from various countries, specifically focusing on South Asia. She was also a fellow for the UN/ORL Women Faith and Gender Fellowship, focusing on topics such as multilayered inclusion and intersectionality, intergenerational dialogues and youth activism.

She received the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence for the year 2019-20.

As a first-generation, lower-income student, Zaka wrote in her Rhodes statement, “I have experienced some of the struggles that go behind succeeding in an unequal society.”

Outside of her studies, Zaka has served as president of the Princeton University Pakistani Student Association (Pehchaan), interview editor and social media chair for The Nassau Literary Review, and president of the Rotaract Club of Lahore, Pakistan, including working with and leading 20 Rotaract members for Rotary International’s End Polio Campaign in Pakistan.

Zaka’s final Rhodes interview took place in person in Pakistan. Upon learning she had won, she said she was overwhelmed and grateful and called her family, who were waiting in the car outside. “The tears would not stop. After meeting the committee, I ran to meet my family. It was an exceptionally joyous moment. I owe everything to the love and mentorship of my family, friends and professors.”

Zaka said she lost three people close to her during the pandemic: her grandmother; Zoya Shoaib, a member of the Class of 2020; and Imam Sohaib Sultan, Princetonlongtime Muslim chaplain who died in April at the age of 40. “All the social distancing and isolation made grief a lot more challenging. I want to dedicate my success to them — they were some of my biggest supporters, and if they were alive, they would have been thrilled to hear about my selection as a Rhodes Scholar.

She is excited to explore the wide range of archival resources in the UK and deepen her studies of South Asian history. “Oxford has some of the world’s foremost historians, and I cannot wait to work with them. I am also looking forward to building new friendships and enjoying the green spaces at Oxford.”

After the Rhodes Scholarship, she hopes to pursue a career in academia as a historian. “As a brown girl from South Asia, I want to contribute to broader social change,” she said. “My presence in the professoriate will make space possible for people like me to initiate other kinds of knowledge and political projects that get snuffed out before they even have the opportunity to start.” She is also interested in working outside academia to make historically marginalized narratives accessible to the wider public in Pakistan by directing documentaries, writing books and organizing workshops.