New Rhodes Scholar raised in Lemont

Mary Houlihan and Michael Lansu
The Herald News

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.”

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