Diana MacArthur ’51: Building a School and Community Stability in Pakistan

Leigh Green
Diana MacArthur ‘51 arrived at Shipley in 11th grade with great aplomb. Hailing from Santa Fe, New Mexico, she says, “I thought I was pretty well educated. Then I went to Shipley and realized I didn’t even know who Michelangelo was! I realized right then and there that I had a lot of work to do.”
She hasn’t stopped working since.
MacArthur’s achievements and adventures span the globe and enter geo-political, educational, social, scientific, and corporate spheres. As a youth, she says, “I was sort of left to my own devices.” She’d journey on cargo ships and in hollowed out riverboats to visit her mother in Guatemala, stopping along the way to explore the streets of Havana, Cuba by herself. She’d spend her holidays in Washington, D.C. with then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird, Macarthur’s aunt. She served extensively in leadership roles with the Peace Corps and co-founded and ran Dynamac Corporation, which provided natural resource management for federal agencies. Subsequently, MacArthur served on President Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. She’s currently writing a book.
Following these tremendous accomplishments and many more is a project so maverick that MacArthur herself calls it “unlikely to have succeeded.” But it did succeed.
Over the past decade in the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan, she has built a state-of-the-art school, the first-ever of its kind there. Earthquake-resistant and aligned with the internationally recognized Aga Khan Education Services standards, the academy will ultimately serve over 700 students at a time from preschool through 12th grade.
MacArthur built the school in honor of her late daughter, Elizabeth “Leeza” Tschursin who, on her own global adventures, journeyed through the village of Murtazabad, Pakistan and loved it. She taught science there for a brief time and had hoped to return one day, but she died before that could happen.
And so building a school in Murtazabad became a labor of love for MacArthur, who has devoted 11 tireless years to orchestrating and funding its establishment, visiting over 20 times and never breaking stride. “I demanded quality, and I got it,” she says.
The impact of the school, which officially opened in September 2018, extends beyond the top-notch education of its students. Because the school is situated along the rapidly developing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, MacArthur’s initial priority was to empower community elders to hold their own. To give voice to the people, she hired a top Pakistani law firm to represent them step by step. She had local construction workers trained by down-country experts, and she worked personally with local Ismaili, Shia, and Sunni Muslim groups to settle any differences. She funded a waste treatment system to complement the new USAID-provided water system in support of the entire mountainous community.
Looking back, MacArthur believes her insatiable quest for knowledge and her resolute expectation of excellence stems from her time at Shipley. “I learned early on that life’s not going to be handed to you. You have to study, do extra work, continually improve, be open, and constantly question things,” she says. “Just getting by does not change the world.”
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.