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Two Chicago-area students earn Rhodes Scholarships

Sarah Smierciak, a Northwestern University graduate has been named a Rhodes Scholar, the university announced Sunday morning. Smierciak graduated Northwestern in June with majors in history and Middle East language and civilization. The Lemont native is currently living in Cairo and developing curriculum for orphans and street children in a special school recognized by the United Nations. She returns to the Evanston campus on Sunday, November 20, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Sarah Smierciak started at Northwestern University with an interest in medicine, but it was a course in the history of the Middle East that put her on a path to one of education’s highest honors – a Rhodes Scholarship.

Smierciak who grew up in Lemont and graduated in June with majors in history and Middle East language and civilization, was named a Rhodes Scholar on Saturday.

“It’s all so surreal,” said a beaming Smierciak Sunday afternoon. “That class propelled me into Middle Eastern studies. It became an all consuming interest.”

Smierciak, who is fluent in Arabic, also studied at the University of Damascus in Syria through an immersion language grant. She currently lives in Cairo and works at Markaz Al-Salam (Center of Peace), a makeshift school where she assists street children trying to make the transition into the mainstream educational system.

Northwestern history professor Carl Petry said Smierciak made a decision early on to “not follow an academic track and end up in a university setting.”

“Sarah wants much more connection with the real world,” Petry said. “She also wants to make a difference socially and has a warmth and capacity to reach across cultures.”

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

“I already see the day to day,” said Smierciak, 22. “But I want to understand the political shifts and how social movements transform over time.”

Also receiving the honor was Alexis Brown, of Algonquin, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Brown applied for the scholarship so she could finish her master’s degree in English language and literature.

The two are among 32 American students awarded scholarships to study at Oxford. Another of the scholars is Ronan Farrow, the son of actress and activist Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen.

The scholarship winners were selected from a pool of 830 candidates nominated by their colleges and universities, according to the Rhodes Scholar’s website.

Contributing: AP