‘Leader and Humanitarian’ Sabah Sial Named U’s First Rhodes Scholar in 20 Years


Portrait of Sabah Sial as The University of Utah’s first Rhodes Scholar in 20 years. (Photo courtesy Sabah Sial)

By Kailey Gilbert, News Writer


In 2021, University of Utah student Sabah Sial became the first person to receive the Rhodes Scholarship from the U in 20 years — she is one of 32 recipients.

The Rhodes Scholarship, created in 1903, was designed to foster a relationship between English-speaking countries and give students the chance to study at the University of Oxford. Now, the scholarship serves students from all nations and is intended to bring together people of different viewpoints from around the world. 

According to Ginger Smoak, the director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships, competitors must demonstrate academic excellence, leadership abilities and “vitality to use one’s energy to make their vision come to fruition.”

“They must also be good citizens who use their abilities, character and courage to help others,” Smoak said in an email interview. 

With a lengthy application process that can take up to a year and an extremely competitive environment, only about 3% of applicants are chosen to obtain this scholarship, Smoak said. The most competitive applicants have 7-8 letters of recommendation. 

According to Smoak, Sial has proven to be “an impressive scholar, leader and humanitarian with amazing vision and motivation to use her knowledge, leadership and desire to help” — all aspects that are important for this scholarship.

As a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship, Sial has been a successful asset to the U.

“The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest and perhaps most prestigious international scholarship,” Smoak said. 

Not only does receiving this scholarship represent the idea of using one’s abilities for the good of themselves, but it also shows their commitment to their communities and the world, Smoak said.

Until the year 1977, women were not even able to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. This year, a record 22 American women were selected as winners of the scholarship, Sial said. 

Sial is interested in studying financial crime prevention with the intent to go to law school.

“I felt that the Rhodes Scholarship was interesting because it really allows you to take a niche that you’re interested in and passionate in making a positive change in and then to connect to likeminded people,” she said. 

She highlighted the diversity of the scholarship and how people from all different fields are selected, saying each applicant still has a common interest: helping people. Sial said each person is standing up for the voices and rights of others.

“The reason I was really drawn to this specific scholarship and this specific type of experience is because I had mentors who had kind of created a change in their communities and in any fields they were in — they were the ones to really push me to apply,” she said. 

While Sial did not think she would receive this scholarship, she still tried and ended up winning the scholarship all the same. 

Sial began her college experience studying pre-med biology. She pivoted to finance after being inspired by an event at the business center. She encouraged others to get involved in activities outside of class and participate in extracurricular activities. 

Growing up in Sandy, Utah, Sial always had a dream of coming to the U. Ultimately, her decision was settled by the Eccles Scholarship — an eight semester comprehensive scholarship bringing 29 students interested in different fields of study together to create a change in the Honors community.

“It feels like I’ve kind of come full circle with the Rhodes Scholarship,” she said. 

She spoke about her childhood and being from a community that lacked a lot of diversity. 

“As a woman of color who is visibly from a different faith, I would have expected it to be harder than it was,” Sial said. “My experience was being fully immersed in the educational experience and building a community wherever I go regardless of what someone’s background is.” 

Her parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in the 1990s. As the oldest of three, she quickly learned her parents found a kind of extended family through other Pakistani families. 

Sial’s mother had a medical degree in Pakistan, but decided not to practice when she came to the U.S. She worked in a medical related field for a while, but stayed home with her kids and helped her husband to start a business. 

“Women, especially in a family situation, end up making a lot of sacrifices, and for that reason she has been a big inspiration to me,” Sial said. 

Sial and the other Rhodes Scholars are set to begin their studies at Oxford in October 2022.


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