In the turbulent wake of the Egyptian revolution, traveling by bus from Cairo to Medinat Al Salam on the outskirts of the capital city might qualify for many as a test of will.
But the trek for Sarah Smierciak, 22, one of two Chicago-area natives to win the coveted Rhodes Scholarship on Saturday, is just a daily commute.
A Northwestern University graduate who hails from southwest Lemont, Smierciak works with orphaned children in the wake of the Egyptian revolution there. Through the Belgium-based nonprofit FACE for Children in Need, she is helping design a teaching curriculum to serve the Sudanese and Egyptian street children who inhabit the area.
Smierciak said the biggest challenge of her job is instilling in the minds of her students, all of whom are boys between ages 6 and 16, the value of education.
“They are used to living on the streets,” she said Sunday, at press conference held by her alma mater. “(They say) ‘why should we learn about history and science? How is that going to help us in our everyday lives?’ “
Smierciak, the daughter of Cook County Judge Robert Smierciak, graduated from Northwestern in June with majors in history and in Middle East language and civilization. She also studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo and Damascus University.
With the Rhodes Scholarship, Smierciak said she plans to take development studies at Oxford University in England starting in the fall.
Algonquin-native Alexis Brown, now in her senior year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, will begin classes in English language and literature at Oxford around the same time.
According to the University of Wisconsin website, she has been a teaching assistant with the AmeriCorps Schools of Hope program and has volunteered at the Bayview International Center for Education and Arts in Madison, where she pioneered a successful creative writing workshop for kids.
She has also been a poetry reviewer, copy editor and associate editor for The Madison Review and is the founder and editor-in-chief for The Madison Journal of Literary Criticism, "the first national undergraduate journal of its kind."
The two young women were among 32 Rhodes Scholars announced Sunday. The winners were selected from 830 applicants endorsed by 299 different colleges and universities.
In fluent Arabic, Smierciak credited her mentors at Northwestern, including William Reno, a political science professor who specializes in the politics of “collapsing states.”
“To provide order and direction for these kids, she doesn’t have any educational experience to do that. It’s her strength of character,” said Reno, who decided to check up on Smierciak over the summer while passing through the region.
He recalled boarding Smierciak’s bus in a Cairo terminal for the 90-minute trip to Medinat Al Salam.
“It quickly goes from being northern Italy to Baghdad … But here’s this little girl from Illinois,” said Reno, who served as Smierciak’s academic advisor. “When I got there, I saw what the real story was and why Rhodes connects with her.”
Smierciak, who is also a triathlete, said she plans to remain in academia and dreams of one day becoming an adviser to the United Nations.
According to Brown's profile on the Rhodes Scholars site, Brown is also a figure skating instructor and a choreographer. Brown could not be reached for comment.