Sarah Smierciak

Rhodes Scholar Recipient

Interviewed By

Monica Cheng

Published On

May 2013

Originally Published

NURJ 2012-13

Sarah Smierciak | Submitted Photo

In 2011, Sarah Smierciak ('11) was selected as a Rhodes Scholar, one of the most prestigious international fellowships that is awarded to 32 Americans each year for outstanding academic achievement, leadership, character, and commitment to the common good. Rhodes Scholars receive full financial support to pursue a degree at the University of Oxford. Smierciak is currently studying international development with a Middle Eastern focus.

How did you learn about the Rhodes Scholarship?

I probably wouldn't have even thought to apply had it not been for Sara Vaux and her team at the Office of the Fellowships: Beth Pardoe, Steve Hill and Brad Zakarin. The Office of Fellowships does an amazing job of promoting a range of scholarships. I had been going there for help with grant applications since freshmen year. They walked me through the whole process of putting together the application and preparing for the interviews. I will never forget the call I got in my room in Cairo the night the Rhodes application was due. It was something like 3am Egypt time and I was frantically trying to finish my thousandth draft, thinking about not submitting it. I answered the unknown number and all I heard was, "JUST GET IT IN!"

I wish I had that voice of reason for everything I do, really.

What does your typical day look like? Is it different from Northwestern?

I actually feel a bit like I'm back in junior high in that I'm with the same group of 24 students every day. We have a set of four classes that we all share for the most part: economics, anthropology, quantitative research methods, and the core international development course. Each day of the week is assigned a subject and mornings are typically lectures followed by afternoon classes (similar to Northwestern's discussion sessions). The only exception is my Turkish course that's outside of my department, which I've kind of snuck into.

The Rhodes community has also been a huge part of my "Oxford experience." This is probably the biggest difference from my time at Northwestern-- just the way an enormous group of really interesting individuals from a smattering of backgrounds are constantly brought together at the various Rhodes House events. It's really been a locus of much of my experience here-- as much as I try to branch out.

How did you discover your interest in Middle Eastern studies?

I actually started out in pre-med and cognitive science, but during my freshman year I took Introduction to Modern Middle Eastern History with Professor Carl Petry. I really knew nothing about the Middle East before that course. On the first day of class I remember a moment of panic when we had to go around the room and say our favorite figure in the Middle East, past or present. I couldn't even think of a name. I finally came up with former Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Buhtto, only to be informed by the TA that actually Pakistan was not in the Middle East.

I think I found the class so fascinating not just because of the region itself, but also because it was my first real look into colonialism, decolonization and the nationalist movements that emerged in the process. All of my previous history classes were very U.S.-Euro-centric. Dr. Petry's course fostered a deep academic curiosity for the Middle East, and that academic curiosity transformed into something even more meaningful after living in the region.

Have you had any other experiences abroad?

My parent's were not in love with the idea that I go to Morocco-- where I was planning to study Arabic in the summer after my Freshman year-- so as a consolation I was allowed to study in Spain. (I did not complain about that one.) The next summer I did an intensive Arabic course in Cairo, and stayed in Egypt for another four months to study at AUC-- the American University in Cairo. And then, I split the following summer between Syria and Egypt doing more language work mostly, and went back to Cairo after I graduated from Northwestern.

Did anything surprising or unexpected happen while you were at Egypt?

Something surprising and unexpected happened every day while I was in Egypt. That's what makes it such a special place. It's funny that when I think back about what was strange, things that were actually very familiar come to mind-- or rather people who were familiar, just out of place. I think I've somehow managed to separate my life in Egypt from my life in the States to such a degree that when the two worlds meet, it's a bit odd. Two of my professors—Carl Petry and Will Reno—visited Cairo while I was there and we were able to meet up. Dr. Petry and I had lunch at one of his favorite old sandwich shops that he used to go to as a student in Cairo, and he told me about the Egypt he remembered from the 70s that looked very different from the one we were in. Professor Reno was visiting a PhD student of his, who is also friend of mine, and they came all the way out-- nearly two hours--to see me and my students in a not so nice part of town on not the best public transportation. It was serious cultural dissonance, but really nice.

What was the most meaningful or memorable experience you had during your stay in Egypt?

I hate to say this because I know how trite it sounds, but my experiences in Egypt changed my life on a very deep level. Still it’s hard to pinpoint one exact moment or experience that is the most defining. I remember drinking tea in the evenings with my neighbor on her little stoop. Her husband owned a laundromat attached to their house and I brought a scarf to be cleaned once and somehow found myself adopted, included in their family outings and wedding festivities. I also remember the bread maker’s young sons who would deliver bread every day from house to house. I lived above a bread oven-- It wasn’t really a bakery; they just had an oven where the put in the dough, and bread would come out on a conveyor belt. Whenever the little boys would see me leave in the morning for work, they’d race their bicycles down the street to say good morning, and when I'd come back, they'd be all covered with flour and we'd sit and joke. These little day to day interactions were, to me, the most meaningful moments.

Who are the most influential people you know from Northwestern?

Professor Petry has been extremely influential, as has my Arabic instructor, Ragy Mikhaeel. I took Arabic with him my sophomore year before going to Egypt, and then for another year after coming back. One of the great things about Ragy is that he’s passionate about the language and really infuses it with life. In my Turkish class here at Oxford, there’s a lot of emphasis on grammar and everything is very structured. It's rigorous and challenging, but it lacks a certain oompf that Ragy provided so well. Dr. Bienen has also become a wonderful mentor, perhaps even more so since I've left NU. We still keep in touch and he's been incredibly supportive and helpful with my current dissertation research. I know just naming names is doing them a disservice, but I can go on for hours talking about the professors who influenced me at Northwestern: Professors Bushnell, Kinra, Rekhess, Lauziere, Reno-- all influenced me in a variety of ways, for which I am incredibly grateful.

What’s the best thing about Northwestern? What advice would you give to current undergraduates interested in pursuing grants and fellowships in their areas of interest?

The beautiful thing about Northwestern is the number of opportunities. I recommend becoming aware of amazing resources available as soon as possible. There are brilliant professors who are willing to open their doors and talk to you about your interests. The Buffet Center is a phenomenal place. The Office of Fellowships is an incredible asset that is, I think, underutilized-- and it’s not just about getting grants; the people there help you decide how to begin projects you’re passionate about by linking you to the appropriate funding sources. I'm starting to feel like their PR person now, but they do a really great job at helping you articulate and understand what you want to do.

What advice do you have for Northwestern undergraduates?

A basic principle I try to live by is to do something every day that makes you uncomfortable. It might be something as simple as talking to a professor after class about something you found interesting in the lecture, or going to office hours, or deciding to study a new subject you never thought to study. I find the most enriching experiences tend to come from breaking out of your comfort zone. Explore!

What are your future plans?

I’m planning on staying for another two years after this program for a DPhil [in International Development]. As for a future career, it's hard to say. I’m leaning towards academia but only if I would be able to actively participate in the policy realm at the same time. We learn about all of the failed paradigms of development in my program. I'd like to pursue a career where I can help do something about those failures, not just talk about them.