CHICAGO (AP) – A 22-year-old graduate from Northwestern University who speaks fluent Arabic and works with orphaned children in Egypt was named Sunday as a prestigious Rhodes Scholar winner.

Sarah Smierciak of Lemont said she was shocked to hear the news. The awards provide all expenses for two or three years of study at Oxford University in England. The 32 winners were selected from 830 applicants endorsed by 299 different colleges and universities. The scholars enter Oxford next October.

“It’s such an honor to be surrounded by such intelligent people who are so motivated and who really want to do good in the world,” Smierciak said.  Smierciak graduated from Northwestern in June, majoring in history and in Middle East language and civilization. Since then, she has worked in a suburb of Cairo, teaching street children and working at a transition house. She plans to do graduate work in development studies at Oxford and get a doctorate degree, and dreams of someday becoming an adviser for the United Nations.

Professors describe her as humble, outgoing and a motivated student who has a gift for learning language: Smierciak went from having no exposure to the Middle East in a suburb west of Chicago to becoming fluent in the language in a few short years.

In her first year at Northwestern, when she thought she would study science, she took a Middle Eastern history class to learn more about contemporary issues and was inspired.

“The whole phenomena of colonization and decolonization and how it was carried out in the Middle East, it was so complex and so rich,” she said. “I knew after that class that’s what I wanted to pursue.”

She then found opportunities to study in Egypt, learn the language and complete translation work. At the same time, she was able to successfully make contacts with locals and become a “cultural ambassador.”

“You would expect this of an advanced graduate student, not an undergrad,” said Northwestern history professor Carl Petry. “This is a person who has extraordinary focus on goals.”

Smierciak, who also volunteered at Chicago’s Field Museum as a docent in Egyptian art, is a triathlete.

The other Rhodes Scholar with Illinois ties is Alexis Brown, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Brown, a native of Algonquin, Ill., founded a national undergraduate journal of literary criticism and is a figure skating instructor. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in English language and literature at Oxford.

Meanwhile, a student from Missouri who attends the University of Kansas has been named a Rhodes Scholar.

Kelsey Murrell, of Kearney, Mo., heard Saturday night that she’s among the 32 American students chosen as Rhodes Scholars to attend Oxford University next fall.

The awards were announced early Sunday and provide all expenses for two or three years of study at Oxford in England. Murrell and the other American students join an international group of scholars selected from 14 other jurisdictions.

Murrell is a senior majoring in creative writing and English literature. The Lawrence Journal World reports that Murrell plans on studying refugees and forced migration at Oxford.

She has also written plays at Kansas, and wants to teach literature at a university.

Rhodes Scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes. Winners are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor, among other attributes.

Approximately 80 scholars are selected each year.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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