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Graduate Wins Rhodes Scholarship

Sarah Smierciak will pursue development studies at Oxford, continue Middle East studies

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November 20, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Produced by Matt Paolelli

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Sarah Smierciak, who graduated in 2011 from Northwestern University summa cum laude, won a Rhodes Scholarship, one of the most prestigious international fellowships in the world, Saturday, Nov. 19. 

Amazingly fluent in Arabic after learning the language for the first time during college, Smierciak currently lives in Cairo, Egypt, where she works as an educational consultant for FACE for Children in Need. A triathlete with energy to spare and an intellectual with boundless curiosity, she travels one and a half hours each way to her job, just outside of Cairo, where she works at a makeshift school, supported by the United Nations, on behalf of street children. She teaches, writes curriculum and works with other teachers in an effort to help students, mostly males, transition into the mainstream educational system and otherwise gain advantages for making a living.  

Rhodes Scholars receive full financial support to pursue a degree or degrees at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Smierciak plans to pursue an M. Phil in development studies. She will use the degree to attain the economic expertise and methodological wherewithal to conduct research on development in the Middle East.  

Smierciak visited the Middle East twice before moving to Cairo in the summer of 2011 and is committed to promoting development in the region, particularly in the realms of health and education. 

She finds the micro understanding of the Middle East that she is getting from her work in Cairo with everyday people, many living in the margins, invaluable. “At Oxford, I want to learn at the macro level what can be done to improve conditions for people on the ground,” Smierciak said.  

Each year 32 Americans are selected as Rhodes Scholars. They are chosen for outstanding scholarly achievement and leadership potential as well as for their character and commitment to others and the common good.  

Smierciak, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern, more than fits the bill, according to those who know her best. “Brave,” “fearless,” “unassuming,“ brilliant” and “just plain nice” are among the adjectives commonly used to describe her. 

Her path to the Rhodes Scholarship began “serendipitously,” she said, with a Northwestern class on the contemporary Middle East. The class was taught by Carl Petry, a professor of history who is a specialist on the Islamic world and the Middle East. Petry’s guidance has been crucial to her academic journey, she said.  

“Five years ago, Sarah knew little about the Middle East, and now she speaks Arabic fluently,” Petry said. “Because of that and her extraordinary ability to connect with people, she has been able to truly immerse herself in Egyptian culture -- away from the usual tourist hotspots. Very few people could do that so well.”  

During the summer of 2010, she studied Arabic at the University of Damascus in Syria through an immersion language grant. Her Arabic fluency coupled with her love of photographing people have gone a long way in helping her meet others from all walks of life, including a network of contemporaries who live in Cairo as well as vendors at the market.    

Networking at Northwestern included her participation in the Middle East and Central Asia Report (MECA), one of her most transformative experiences at the University. The MECA, housed at The Roberta Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern, brings together students, mostly at the graduate level, with diverse interests in highly intellectual, and sometimes heated, discussions.  

“Every week we got together for one and half to two hours to discuss topics in the news related to the Middle East, from elections in Iraq to President Obama’s visits to the region to the Egyptian revolution,” she said.   

Her initiative and ability to network with graduate students and other specialists in the Middle East made her stand out for William Reno, an associate professor of political science who is a specialist in African politics and the politics of collapsing states. After she came to his attention through informal networks, he remembers thinking “this is a good one.”  

On his way back from Somalia in September, Reno stopped off in Cairo to visit with one of his graduate students and Smierciak.  “Cairo in many ways is a very European city, and the farther the train takes you toward the suburb where Sarah works the more depressed the landscape becomes,” he said. When Reno got off the train, he had to take a taxi to an overpass and climb down an embankment to get to Smierciak’s school. “It really is striking to see this tiny woman from Illinois -- who speaks Arabic -- in this setting,” he said.  

Smierciak attributes her passion for Arabic to Ragy Mikhaeel, a lecturer in African and Asian languages at Northwestern. “He worked tirelessly with me for many hours for three years,” she said. “I owe so much to him for my understanding of the language and the culture. He was my Egypt away from Egypt while I was back in the States.”  

From Lemont, Ill., Smierciak majored in history and in Middle East language and civilization at Northwestern. She earned departmental honors for her thesis on the power relationship between President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Egyptian communists’ labor mobilization. 

Her work also was guided by Henry Bienen, president emeritus of Northwestern, a member of the board of trustees of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a political scientist with interests in political and economic development. She met him through a student-led seminar in which he participated as a guest lecturer. 

Smierciak comes from a family that especially bleeds Northwestern purple. Her brother, Robert, is a freshman in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Science, and her sister, Catherine, graduated in 2008 from the University’s School of Communication and afterward won a DAAD Arts Fellowship to study in Germany.   

The Rhodes Trust is a British charity established to honor the will and bequest of Cecil J. Rhodes. See the following press release on the 32 Rhodes Scholars representing the United States.
Topics: People, University