Rhodes Scholar's talent for connecting cultures blossomed in Greenville

By Brock Letchworth
The Daily Reflector

Aisha Saad credits a close-knit community in Greenville and personal connections here for laying the foundation for her research and travels the past three years.

Since graduating in 2005 from J.H. Rose High School, Saad has dedicated herself to connecting cultures both on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus and internationally.

The 21-year-old's endeavors paid off last weekend when she was named one of 32 Rhodes Scholars nationwide.

The Rhodes Scholarship will take Saad to England's Oxford University where she will seek a master's degree in nature, society and environmental policy. She eventually plans to go into environmental law where she will focus on policy development domestically and internationally.

Saad said she spent part of Monday morning sending e-mails of appreciation to former teachers and others whom she said helped influence her.

“Because Greenville is such a close community, it was a great place for me to learn how to be a public figure in a community setting where I was a part of the minority,” Saad said. “I learned how to bridge a lot of background gaps, a lot of social gaps and communication gaps. There are so many people that I will not forget, people who helped me get into the mind-set of thinking big and connecting across disciplines.”

Saad's family moved from Cairo to the United States when she was 6. Her father accepted a teaching position in East Carolina University's Department of Construction Management in 1999, bringing the family to Greenville.

The oldest of five children, Saad attended E.B. Aycock Middle School for two years before advancing to J.H. Rose. The family moved to Cary following her graduation in 2005.

Pitt County Schools officials could not confirm Monday whether Saad is the first graduate from the county to receive the honor.

She is on pace to graduate in May with degrees in environmental health sciences in the UNC School of Public Health and Spanish in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is fluent in Arabic and Spanish and has reading proficiency in French and conversational proficiency in Hindi.

She was the recipient of the Morehead-Cain Scholarship.

During the past three years, Saad has interned with government ministries in Peru and in the blood diseases ward of Cairo University's Teaching Hospitals and hiked a couple of the world's largest mountain ranges.

She also spent last summer mediating for Cherokee Investment Partners in Bhopal, India, where the firm's plan for cleaning the Union Carbide site in Bhopal, India, fueled a negative reception from activist groups.

Saad said she noted during her Rhodes Scholarship interview Saturday how she thought her experiences as a Muslim in Greenville prepared her for that role.

“At times, it was difficult after 9/11, when public response was really puzzled about how to interact with the Muslim community or how to receive them, but in Greenville everyone overlaps at the Little League baseball games, at neighborhood cookouts and those types of things. There is so much of that community overlap that it bridges across the personal connections, and to me, that has been an approach that I have taken into even environmental issues. Looking at mediation with one-on-one personal connection has been my entryway into trying to bridge different perspectives.”

Ihab Saad, Aisha's father, says her efforts are consistent throughout her family.

“We came from a different background, growing up in Egypt,” he said. “We are of the Muslim faith so we felt that it was a responsibility of ours to try to bridge some of the gaps that people put between different cultures. All of us have been quite active in the community trying to build bridges and serving in whatever capacity we can to get a better understanding of who we are and how we can be a valuable part of society.”

Worldwide, about 85 Rhodes Scholars are selected annually. The scholarship provides tuition, fees and a stipend for living expenses for up to three years.

Saad is the 42nd Rhodes Scholar from the UNC-Chapel Hill since the award debuted in 1904.