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'I'm still in a state of disbelief,' University of Utah senior named Rhodes scholar

Sabah Sial poses for a picture on the University of Utah campus.

Sabah Sial poses for a picture on the University of Utah campus. (University of Utah Communications and Marketing)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Sabah Sial, a senior majoring in finance, is one of 32 nationwide Rhodes scholars named earlier this month and the first Rhodes scholar from the University of Utah in 20 years.

"I keep going back to that moment because I'm still in a state of disbelief in terms of it even happening," Sial said, reflecting on the moment she learned she had been named a Rhodes scholar after an agonizing three-and-a-half hour waiting period over a Zoom call while the selection committee members deliberated.

Sial, from Sandy, was selected from among 2,300 U.S. applicants this year for the prestigious scholarship, which provides tuition and living expenses for two years of international graduate study at Oxford University. Sial plans to study the intersection of finance, criminology and criminal justice next year.

"You could have thought that my Zoom screen had just frozen — I was just smiling and not moving at all," Sial said.

Sial said that the idea of applying for the scholarship arose out of conversations she had with Honors College Dean Sylvia Torti, as well as her professor L. Jackson Newell, while she served as their teacher's assistant during her sophomore year.

"They connected me with some of our advisers at the U. and a former Rhodes scholar, so it was really helpful in terms of making the thought of the scholarship seem a lot more concrete rather than just this ephemeral idea that (the scholarship) was completely unattainable for me," Sial said. "It made it seem a lot more realistic."

Born in Pakistan and raised in Utah, Sial dedicated her undergraduate study to economic policy and white-collar crime — and their particular impact on disadvantaged and underrepresented populations. For the past two summers, Sial interned at Goldman Sachs' Salt Lake City office in the criminal compliance division, an experience that was "pivotal" for her desire to promote accountability and access in finance.

"I came from a background of finance, but most of the people in the compliance function at these banks come from a legal background. I was able to see the intricacies of how markets can influence money laundering and sometimes make it easier for individuals to launder money or commit illicit activity or mask it through the flow of funds," Sial said.

Sial also said she wants to make finance more accessible for individuals, regardless of their socioeconomic or racial backgrounds.

"I think that finance itself seems a little inaccessible both in terms of who can access finance and who has access at the table in terms of making legislation as it relates to financial and economic policy," Sial added. "Remediating that specific process in terms of access to loans, making it easier for individuals from different backgrounds and different socioeconomic backgrounds to access financing needs — that'll actually have long term impacts on their growth potential in terms of their economic growth and output."

Required qualifications for a Rhodes scholarship include academic excellence, social impact, ability to work with others, commitment to making a difference for good in the world, awareness of inequities and concern for the safety of others. Public service is a critical component of the application process.

While at the University of Utah, Sial has advocated for diversification of the Honors College curriculum, worked to give students a voice in the chief safety office through the SafeU Ambassador program and volunteered at the vice-presidential debate that was held at the U. in 2020. Sial is a presidential intern, chief justice for the ASUU Supreme Court, and an Eccles scholar in the Honors College.

"Her work ensures that students have the opportunity to be heard and to shape policy on safety on campus," said Ginger Smoak, director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships. "She is a visionary, using her extraordinary intellectual ability and talents, able to see the big picture and work to include many diverse voices.

"The Rhodes scholarship will give her the opportunity to continue to hone those abilities over the next two years. I have full confidence that she will contribute to the future of the world in a big way."

Although being named a Rhodes scholar is undoubtedly an impressive individual accomplishment, Sial doesn't want to understate the importance of a supportive community at the university that helped her achieve this feat.

"I would just want to emphasize the role that everyone else has played in getting me to where I am in terms of my professors who encouraged me to apply and especially the University of Utah being so supportive connecting me with people and just making it seem that much more realistic for me — I definitely wouldn't have even applied without that kind of support," Sial said.

Sial will pursue two master's degrees while at Oxford — one in criminology and criminal justice, the other in financial economics.

"(I'm) definitely most excited for the people that I'm going to meet and also for the broader community at Oxford in terms of professors and research opportunities and also just being in the U.K. is a super cool opportunity," Sial added. "I'm grateful that I get to not just witness (research), but actually be a part of that research and that new knowledge coming out."

Since 1904, the U. has had 23 total Rhodes scholarship winners, the last of which was in 2002. Sial is one of 22 women named Rhodes scholars from U.S. universities this year. Women have only been allowed to apply since 1976. In its nearly 120-year history, 3,578 Americans have won Rhodes scholarships — 627 of them women. Over 100 Rhodes scholars will be selected worldwide in 2021.

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