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Meet 2023 Forward Award Recipient Farha Tahir ’09, MIPA’10

Farha Tahir likes to joke that much of her time as an undergraduate at UW–Madison was spent “stumbling into what I was meant to do.”

Farha Tahir ’09, MIPA’10

UW Majors: History, Political Science, International Public Affairs
Program Analyst, U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Farha Tahir likes to joke that much of her time as an undergraduate at UW–Madison was spent “stumbling into what I was meant to do.” In actuality, her path from almost-law student to program analyst at the U.S. State Department is marked by sure-footed courage and steady steps toward strengthening democracy around the world.

Tahir arrived on campus with an interest in political science and history, which she assumed would eventually track into law school. But while sitting in a foreign policy class during her sophomore year, Tahir learned about a new internship program that paired UW students with opportunities in the nation’s capital. Tahir joined one of the first cohorts of the program, now known as the Wisconsin in Washington Internship Program.

Tahir, who grew up in Shorewood, Wisconsin, says she was initially “terrified” to apply. “I’d never lived in a big city before or taken a train to work or anything like that,” she says. “But I had the comfort of knowing the university would be behind me, and I had the support of my peers. I got [to DC] and never looked back.”

She did physically come back to Madison, though, to finish her degrees after her internship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Along with three peers from the Wisconsin in Washington program, Tahir cofounded a student-run international development program called the EDGE Project that served the small island of Lingira, located in Uganda’s Lake Victoria. With local leaders on Lingira, the students launched a farmers’ co-op, girls’ soccer team, women’s economic collaborative, and several other initiatives. The program lasted almost a decade after Tahir and the other founders graduated, with dozens of UW students participating over the years. 

The EDGE Project was a learning laboratory for Tahir that solidified her own passion for development work. After graduation, she returned to CSIS as a full-time research associate and then became a program officer at the National Democratic Institute, followed by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). She traveled extensively throughout sub-Saharan Africa and built especially close ties in Somalia, Malawi, and Tanzania.

“Being able to build grant-making programs in a variety of countries and watch as our partners changed the trajectories of their countries, and in some cases the continent, was so exciting to be a part of,” Tahir says of her time at NED. “I loved to be able to invest in the creativity and promise of an idea, watch it take root, and then see it blossom. I feel so lucky to have been able to invest in ideas I believed in and watch them turn into new organizations or media outlets, advocacy campaigns, or social movements.”

She transitioned to the State Department, where she now oversees programs that support democracy around the world as a program analyst for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. She is also responsible for developing new strategies for democracy programming that aim to help democratic actors keep pace with citizen demands in an increasingly complicated international context. 

“I have always felt that everyone deserves to be able to shape their lived reality, and that’s why I care about democracy,” she says. “If I can contribute to that in some small way, that’s the big goal. The power of democracy is not something we can take for granted.”  

Outside of work, Tahir belongs to her local barre studio and a multigenerational monthly walking club that helps her explore DC’s neighborhoods, trails, and museums. “We are all at different stages of life, but we love the city, love to learn, and like meeting new people,” she says. Over time, the group has formed a strong, supportive community among its members. Step by step, together.

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