Rakhsha Khatri’s parents moved to Shaker Heights from Pakistan so their daughters could have an education and a better life.
By Jennifer Kuhel
What a twenty-year-old Rakhsha Kahtri, a Shaker Heights High graduate, remembers about growing up in Karachi, Pakistan is that her family had a very comfortable life there.
Her father, Naresh, was the CEO of a successful family business. The family lived in a spacious, renovated apartment with Internet service, television, and a desktop computer. Rakhsha’s parents are Hindu, so her mother, Vidya, didn’t require her daughter to wear the traditional Muslim dress, the shalwar kameez, or a duppatta headscarf. Instead, she encouraged Rakhsha to wear whatever she wanted – jeans, t-shirts, and the occasional sleeveless tops. Rakhsha attended a private school, where she was one of only a handful of girls (and the only Hindu student), and her parents paid for tutoring in math and science to help their oldest daughter get ahead.
“If someone else was in my parents’ position, they never would have left,” Rakhsha says. “We had everything there.”
Everything, except a bright future for herself and her two younger sisters, Yogeeta and Vandana. My husband and I both had a dream for our daughters,” says Vidya. “We wanted them to have an education and careers.”
The couple knew that staying in Pakistan meant that any hopes they might have for the Khatri girls’ professional futures would be compromised by Pakistani cultural norms for women: arranged marriages and lives as homemakers.
So in 2012, when Rakhsha was entering eighth grade, her parents surprised her with the news that they were leaving Pakistan for the United States. The Khatris had family in a city called Shaker Heights and they would move there along with Naresh’s mother. Rakhsha’s parents told her she would attend a school called Shaker Heights Middle School.
She was terrified and resistant, yet she understood.
“You can do this.”
It wasn’t until Vidya met her husband that she realized the difference an education could make in the lives of women. In her family, women assumed traditional roles and received only a limited education. But Naresh came from a family where a premium was placed on education, even for his four sisters, all of whom have college degrees. Naresh also had family members who moved to the United States and had successful careers. He wanted the same opportunities for his children.
“When I was a student, I was one of three girls sitting in the classroom of 100 boys,” says Vidya. “I was worried more about whether I was covered up for the boys than studying. I didn’t want our girls to go through that same frustration.”
The couple moved away from the villages they’d grown up in to settle in Karachi, where it was more acceptable for girls to be in school. They applied for a visa in 1998, even before Rakhsha was born. As she grew older and as the Khatris visited with family who had already moved to the United States, it became clear to Vidya and Naresh that leaving Pakistan was the only way to fulfill their dream for their children.
But assimilating and adjusting to life in America wasn’t easy. Companies in the U.S. wouldn’t recognize Naresh’s engineering degree, so he took a job as a machinist and worked the night shift. Eventually, he purchased a gas station in Painesville, where 17-hour days were the norm. Vidya stayed at home to watch over the family, but she didn’t have a driver’s license.
All the while Rakhsha did her best to navigate a new language, a new country, a new culture and a new school. She remembers going to a new families orientation at Shaker Heights Middle School and feeling like she didn’t belong. “I tried to open my locker and I couldn’t do it,” she recalls. “Everyone around me seemed to know what they were doing and I didn’t. And the clothes I wore didn’t help.”
Her feelings of insecurity and new-school anxiety would be common for any teenager, but the added layer of being in a new and unfamiliar country proved overwhelming for her. So when school started, the daily tears did, too. “One day she went to school and came back and cried, ‘I can’t do it! I can’t go to school here! It’s too hard for me,” says Vidya.
Her response to her daughter was always gentle, but clear. “You can do this,” she would say.
Over time, she did, thanks to her own persistence and to the many teachers who looked out for her.
A Classroom Asset
To this day, Rakhsha is effusive with her gratitude when it comes to Shaker Heights Schools, its teachers, and the kindness and compassion shown to her. And her teachers say she is among their most memorable students.
Shaker Heights Middle School Principal Miata Hunter was Khatri’s eighth grade math teacher. She recognized Rakhsha’s enthusiasm for learning early on and encouraged her to work toward being in an advanced-level course.
Rakhsha jumped at the chance. “There were still a lot of things that she didn’t know, but she took algebra over the summer,” Hunter remembers. “When she went to the High School, she entered at 9 Math Honors, which is an advanced math class.”
What makes Rakhsha special to Hunter has little to do with her being a good student. “I always appreciated that she loved a challenge. She always wanted to go further,” Hunter says. “She has this attitude that ‘I’m going to strive for the best because I deserve the best’ and I think a lot of that is because she wants to be the example to her family.”
Middle School Health Teacher Beth Casey still has a small picture Rakhsha made for her that hangs in her classroom. It’s a drawing of a woman in a Pakistani village, carrying water from a river. At the top of the picture, Rakhsha wrote: “If you can’t be beautiful, you should at least be good. People will appreciate that.”
Casey has kept it all these years because she says that Rakhsha’s message is an important one, especially for teenage girls. The picture is also a reminder to her that opportunity is a privilege, not a right.
“Here in the U.S., I think we have this view of what the Middle East is like for women. Rakhsha taught me that it depends on where you’re from, and that varies even within a country,” Casey says. “She was such an asset to my class because she taught us things about the world that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. She had personal experience with gender roles. And the vibe that I always got from her was that she was thankful to be in a community that was accepting of her because it was diverse.”
The Challenge of High School
Life introduced a new learning curve and unforeseen challenges when Rakhsha transitioned to Shaker Heights High School. For example, she and her parents had no idea what a guidance counselor was. There were so many after-school activities to choose from, but since Rakhsha’s father worked long hours to support the family and because her mother didn’t drive, she had limited transportation options. She was so adamant about attending class that when colleges would visit the High School to recruit students, she refused to miss school. And then shortly after she got her driver’s license, she was in a serious car accident. The cumulative effect of all of this was that Rakhsha grew increasingly despondent.
Her teachers noticed. “She was divided between two worlds,” says her school counselor Catherine Szendrey. “I think it was hard for her to be the older sister, trying to be the responsible one who had to figure it all out.” Szendrey remembers many days when Rakhsha would come into her office just looking for someone to talk to. She needed a support system.
Her junior year, she found it. She decided to pursue the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, which opened the door to the social-emotional and academic culture she craved. “All the people in the IB Programme were so supportive and so genuine,” she says. “It was a real turning point for me.”
Rakhsha’s Government teacher, Halle Bauer, recalls a particularly moving experience during her Model Congress segment, when students spend a week learning what it’s like to move a bill through Congress. Rakhsha wrote a bill about shortening wait times for visa applications as a reform to naturalization laws.
“She stood up in front of the whole class and shared her family’s story. She talked about how immigrants just want to be productive citizens and how they want to be a part of society,” Bauer says. “When she was done, she got a standing ovation and her bill passed unanimously.”
“At that moment, I felt like everyone was there for me,” Rakhsha says. “I grew more than I ever could have imagined because of the opportunities at school and my teachers.”
Living the Dream
Rakhsha applied to Miami University her senior year. It was the only college campus she’d ever been to because she attended a summer camp there. The school gave her a generous financial aid package and she was admitted to the honors program. In August 2017, she packed up her belongings and headed south to Oxford, Ohio.
Vidya is proud of her daughter. “She struggled a lot and it was hard for her,” she says. “For all the times that I was frustrated, I would just look at our girls and remember why we came. Rakhsha has done better than I ever expected.”
Today, Rakhsha is a junior at Miami. She has a warm, compassionate way about her, so it’s no surprise that she’s a Resident Assistant. She also has a confidence that comes with enduring considerably more life experience than her 20 years would suggest. She plans to double major in microbiology and public health with minors in anthropology and pre-med.
The decorations on the walls of Rakhsha’s dorm room – a Pakistani flag, a sign that reads “Know Them, Raise Them, Be Them,” a picture of Rosie the Riveter, and a Celebrate Diversity bumper sticker – serve as outward expressions and inward reminders of who she is: a strong, bright, principled, and driven young woman who embraces her adoptive country and the future it’s provided her.
“There is no such thing as an obstacle in Rakhsha’s life. Only opportunities,” Szendrey says. “I think that pretty much says it all.”
Originally published in Shaker Life, Spring 2020.