Profile with Sarah Smierciak

Sarah Smierciak (Illinois & St Antony’s 2012) is studying for her MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Oxford. She is currently living in Cairo, doing fieldwork for her dissertation on business-state relations in Egypt. Sarah is fluent in Arabic, and holds a BA in History and Middle East Language and Civilization from Northwestern University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Sarah Smierciak: Well, I’m originally from a suburb of Chicago, but I think home is where community is-- where people you care about and who care about you are. My parents are still in Chicago, so I'd say the little pocket they're in is home. But over the past four years I’ve probably spent more time in Cairo than any other single place, and this has definitely become home in a way too.

Rhodes Project: What did you find most surprising about studying at Oxford?

Sarah Smierciak: How very un-British my experience has been. Both my program and my college are very international, and then of course there’s the Rhodes community. I went in thinking I was going to have this very British experience, and it’s turned out not to be that way at all. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the world with really interesting backgrounds.

Rhodes Project: What inspired your interest in Middle Eastern Language and Civilization?

Sarah Smierciak: Originally I was interested in learning more about the Iraq War. I was a freshman in college and at the time we were deep in this quagmire in a place that I knew nothing about. I took a class in Middle East history, and the more I learned about it - the processes of colonization and decolonization, the persistent aftereffects that we see to this day -  the more fascinated I became. I started studying Arabic, studied abroad in Egypt and things just kind of took off from there.  

Rhodes Project: Tell me a little bit about what you are doing right now in Egypt.

Sarah Smierciak: Right now I’m doing my research for my dissertation, which was originally going to be on business-state relations within the Muslim Brotherhood-- looking at the role of Brotherhood leaders who were also involved in business, and their relation to Brotherhood leaders in political positions. But the day after I arrived the Brotherhood was ousted. I’ve had to pretty drastically reshape my topic on the go; I’m still looking at business-state relations, but via the private sector more generally. I’m looking at how businesses have dealt with transition – how these big businessmen from the Mubarak regime have dealt with the transition to post-Mubarak – how that’s affecting the economic structure of Egypt. I’m also looking at the space for potential inclusion of small and medium sized enterprises because up until now the economy has been largely dominated by these big oligopolies.

Rhodes Project: What is the biggest misconception that people in the West have about the Middle East?

Sarah Smierciak: Before the "Arab Spring," I would have said the biggest misconception was that everyone in the Middle East is a terrorist. I remember the first time I went to Syria feeling incredibly deceived. All of the media I had ever been exposed to suggested that Syria was full of terrorists and awful people. It was almost supposed to be part of this axis of evil. I would walk away from random encounters laughing at the absurd disconnect between the generosity and kindness that is such a core element of the culture, and the images I had imagined before going. Now I would say the biggest misconception is that everything is constantly in a state of chaos and destruction. In the case of Syria, yes, that may be true. But the media makes it very difficult to distinguish between a country in the state of war and a country with pockets of violence and unrest. 

Rhodes Project: What is something you have learned about yourself from your time in Egypt?

Sarah Smierciak: It's hard to tell the difference between what Egypt has taught me about myself and how Egypt has defined that self. Egypt is a place that constantly tests you-- keeps you on your toes. You learn how you react in extreme situations. Egypt has taught me that sometimes I react well, and other times not so well... 

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Sarah Smierciak: It would probably be youth education and employment opportunities. One thing that has become apparent to me from my time in the Middle East is how much ambition, talent and drive are squashed by the fact that not everybody has the appropriate political connections or funding. Of course this problem exists in many places, not just Egypt or the Middle East. If I had unlimited money to devote to one thing it would be to get people who are inspired, passionate and want to do good things in this world access to the resources that allow them to do that.  This I think comes in the form of education and appropriate employment.

Rhodes Project:  What was it like working in an Egyptian school?

Sarah Smierciak: Well, it wasn't a traditional Egyptian school-- it was for homeless children who didn’t have proper paperwork to attend the state school. They didn't technically exist according to the state. It was an incredibly eye opening, enriching experience. I'd like to think that I taught them some things, but they taught me infinitely more I'm sure. It was amazing. Despite the fact that they had gone through really awful things, they still kept their childlike innocence about them, and some had this incredible passion and drive to excel, despite the fact that society repeatedly told them that they could never. 

Rhodes Project: What is your proudest moment as a triathlete?

Sarah Smierciak: I raced a half Ironman in Kansas when I was a sophomore in college– I think just finishing was a triumph for me! 

Rhodes Project:  What are you most looking forward to in life?

Sarah Smierciak: I’m excited to apply things that I’ve had the great privilege to learn and think about. I feel like I am in this incubator and it’s an incredible gift to have time to indulge in reading, writing, thinking and learning languages, but I'm looking forward to really do something constructive with those indulgences. 

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