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Arshi Rizwani-Nisley accepts the League of Women Voters of Wyoming 2017 Making Democracy Work Award at the Wyoming Supreme Court Building on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, in Cheyenne.

CHEYENNE – Arshi Rizwani-Nisley received the League of Women Voters of Wyoming 2017 Making Democracy Work Award on Wednesday, in part for her work as an educator at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne.

And while her work teaching and serving in various other capacities at LCCC made her a worthy nominee, the remarkable personal story of the immigrant, Muslim Cheyenne resident made her a distinct recipient.

Rizwani-Nisley first came to the U.S. from Pakistan when her father, a sociologist, brought his family to Fort Collins, Colorado, on an academic sponsorship at Colorado State University. The family returned to Pakistan when her father died. But her mother was also a sociologist who lectured at a university and later moved the family to Canada, where she earned her doctorate. Clearly, education was a driving force in the family’s life.

When her sister, Rakhshi Hamid, spoke about Rizwani-Nisley during the award ceremony in the Wyoming Supreme Court Building, she talked about how she not only moved people as an educator, but as a person.

“She’s such a good teacher that her daughter was reading ‘Goodnight Moon’ to herself at the age of 3,” Hamid said. “Now, she sets an example for all students. That most Muslims are peaceful; that women can and should be educated; that we all need to be actively involved in solving problems that we see around us. … So thank you for honoring my sister: a Muslim, an immigrant, an educator and a voter.”

The annual award is given by League of Women Voters organizations around the country to community members or organizations based on requirements set by individual leagues, said Susan Simpson, League of Women Voters of Wyoming president.

Since the honor was first awarded in Wyoming in 1998, Simpson said recipients have exemplified good character, qualities of honor and justice, being active in one’s community, and making contributions to one’s profession and to a community’s democratic processes.

“They’ve all helped make democracy work in Wyoming, because it takes all of us,” Simpson said of the award’s recipients.

In 1989, Rizwani-Nisley became a U.S. citizen – something she’s never taken lightly. She has a Ph.D. and for the last 12 years has been a faculty member at LCCC, teaching in its education program. In addition to serving as the advisor and regional coordinator for Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year colleges, Rizwani-Nisley is active in the Cheyenne community.

A proponent for women’s rights, Rizwani-Nisley spoke passionately during the Cheyenne Women’s March in January. She is also active in the Islamic Center of Cheyenne, where she serves on the board of trustees. Each Friday, Rizwani-Nisley lives her support for religious freedom and her adoration of Muslim heritage by wearing the shalwar kameez garments to work.

Much of it stems from her belief in Americans’ constitutionally protected freedom of expression.

“I’m so proud to be part of a democracy that gives me freedom of speech – sometimes my students say it’s too much freedom,” Rizwani-Nisley said with a laugh.

Rizwani-Nisley said she was proud to be part of a community that welcomed her and her expressions, and thanked those who fight to preserve those rights. Being active in democracy, she said, was something people must do to preserve the freedoms enjoyed by Wyomingites and Americans.

“I think it’s more important every day for us to know the issues affecting us, and for us to be involved,” she said.

“Talk to elected officials … and let our officials know that in a democracy, our voice counts. We’d like you to protect our environment for our children, and to improve education for our students, and to provide health care for our parents, and to help keep the promise and dream alive in a nation of immigrants for all of us. We love this country, and we want to be a part of it. And the way to be a part of it is to have our voices heard through a democratic process.”

Among the many distinguished attendees at Wednesday’s ceremony were two of Wyoming’s state lawmakers, Rep. Bill Henderson and Sen. Tara Nethercott, both R-Cheyenne. Both said it was a wonderful occasion to recognize the importance of the award and the community that bestows it.

“I just felt it was an incredible opportunity to show my support for the League of Women Voters and the recipient,” Nethercott said. “She’s an incredible woman in our community here in Laramie County who truly exemplifies real work on the ground in making our community a better place.”

While also acknowledging Rizwani-Nisley’s remarkable abilities in reaching students who seem unreachable, LCCC President Joe Schaffer also took a moment to speak to her importance to the community on a broader scale.

“(Tolerance) is probably one of our most important aspirational values at this point, and all you have to do is look around the world to understand that we’re losing our ability to demonstrate tolerance,” Schaffer said. “Alternative perspectives, beliefs are the very foundation of America, and Arshi represents tolerance and diversity in so many different ways.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the ceremony took place on Tuesday. 

Joel Funk is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at jfunk@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @jmacfunk.

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