Luce Scholar Yaza Sarieh 18Ox 20C thanks Oxford mentors

The roots of a prestigious scholarship and an upcoming study in Asia were nourished at Oxford College.

The Oxford community is celebrating the announcement that Yazmina Sarieh 18Ox 20C, known to her friends as Yaza, has been selected to the 2021 cohort of Luce Scholars. A creation of the Henry Luce Foundation, the Luce Scholarship is one of the most prestigious post-graduate scholarships in the country, with no more than 18 recipients chosen from a large pool of well-accomplished applicants from across the U.S.

“We are delighted that the Luce Foundation has recognized Yaza’s academic achievement, leadership, and focus on serving others with this extraordinary fellowship,” says Doug Hicks, dean of Oxford College. “The Oxford community takes great pride in all Yaza has already accomplished, and I join her in expressing gratitude to the Oxford faculty and staff who guided her along this remarkable pathway to a Luce Scholarship."

While receiving the Luce Scholarship is a personal achievement for Sarieh, she also gives credit to many who have helped her gain this honor. Among those she praises most highly are two Oxford faculty members: Susan Ashmore, Charles Howard Candler Professor of History, and Associate Professor of Religion Florian Pohl, who for many years also taught Arabic studies. She considers both Ashmore and Pohl mentors who helped form her academic and professional path.

When she arrived as an Oxford first-year student in the fall of 2016, she had her sights on a double major in political science and international relations. By chance she took a course her first semester with Ashmore, and everything changed. “Dr. Ashmore converted me to history,” she says. “I took every course she taught except one and I did an independent study with her.” Although various members of her family speak Arabic, Sarieh did not, and she decided to take Pohl’s courses in the language.

Both professors speak of Sarieh’s accomplishments and scholarship with pride. Says Ashmore, “I am not surprised the Luce Foundation chose Yaza for this opportunity. Her intellectual curiosity combined with her rich leadership experiences gained at Oxford College, ECAS, and the Carter Center have prepared her. She has been on a quest to understand the plight of refugee populations and then find ways to improve their lives. I look forward to finding out what will she will uncover in this year of discovery.”

Pohl notes ”her intellectual ability, curiosity, maturity, civic-mindedness, and her leadership,” and adds, “[There’s] something else that sets her apart in my mind. It’s how comfortable she makes others feel around her. Learning Arabic, especially in the early stages, is challenging. Not only is it lots of work but it’s also emotionally taxing because we frequently feel like we’re embarrassing ourselves in front of our peers. To be a successful learning community requires people who make others feel good about themselves, the group, the learning process. Yaza does that by her very presence. She’ll be a boon to this year’s class of Luce Scholars.”

Luce Scholars receive stipends, language training, and individualized professional placement, with the aim of giving young leaders the resources to develop a deeper understanding of the Asian region. Asked about her specific plans, Sarieh says she will work on projects assisting migrants and refugees, possibly among the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar who have sought refuge since 2016 in Bangladesh, fleeing violence in their home country.

Her interest in these efforts began within her own family’s story. Sarieh was born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., where her parents settled after immigrating from Jordan. Prior to that her grandfather, who was born near Haifa, escaped in 1947 to refugee camps in Jordan set up during the first Arab-Israeli war.

A look at her academic and personal achievements over the past few years shows this long-time focus. A Phi Beta Kappa inductee, she earned a BA in history and Arabic studies from Emory College of Arts and Sciences (ECAS) in 2020. The ECAS Department of History awarded her the Matthew A. Carter Citizens Award, given to the graduate who has been the best example of achievement and good works in the community.

As an undergraduate, she co-directed Behind the Glass, an organization connecting students with undocumented detainees who were being held in a nearby detention center. She worked with Georgia Organics, a food justice organization, to address food insecurity among Georgia schoolchildren. She interned with the International Rescue Committee to support newly arrived refugees and with the Carter Center, where she worked on large-scale conflict resolution and advocacy for the rights of internally displaced populations created by the Syrian civil war.

While these accomplishments were concentrated during her time at ECAS, Sarieh says that her start at Oxford was “foundational,” although until her senior year of high school she hadn’t heard of it. The counselor in her small all-girls school in Nashville suggested she look at Emory for her college career. On a visit to Emory’s Atlanta campus, she decided to see Oxford also, and, she says it was love at first sight. “I just knew that Oxford was where I wanted to start my Emory degree.”

“I still ask advice from my Oxford professors,” she says. She also says that the oft-repeated phrase that Oxford’s small community of first- and second-year students provides unusual opportunities is simply true. “I was an RA, and I had leadership roles in the clubs I belonged to. That just isn’t possible in the sophomore year elsewhere.”