By Mary Abowd
Photos by Robert Kozloff
Originally published on February 11, 2015
February 16, 2015
Fourth-year College student Yusef Al-Jarani has won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge beginning in the fall. One of 40 U.S. recipients chosen from a pool of some 800 applicants, Al-Jarani will complete an MPhil in development studies, focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.
The Gates Cambridge is awarded to students who exhibit academic excellence and leadership potential, and who demonstrate a commitment to improving others’ lives. Al-Jarani plans to work in economic development to help Arab youth find jobs. “I am grateful for this opportunity to help me get to where I want to be and help who I want to help,” Al-Jarani said.
Al-Jarani’s focus on the Arab world grew out of his childhood years traveling to Libya from his home in Xenia, Ohio, to visit his father’s extended family.
“As an Arab American you sort of can’t be divorced from the politics of the region."
— Yusef Al-Jarani
Al-Jarani recalls the mood when longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi ruled the country. “My father would tell me not to look at anyone or speak to anyone because they could potentially be a state agent,” he said. “I remember a very authoritarian society.”
But during his most recent trip to Libya in September 2012—after Arab Spring uprisings led to Gaddafi’s overthrow—Al-Jarani saw possibilities for a new way forward. “People were the happiest I’d ever seen them,” he said. “They had suffered for so long and now was their chance to build a better life—it was a very inspirational experience for me.”
After completing his degree at Cambridge, Al-Jarani would like to develop small and medium-sized businesses in high-knowledge industries to help Middle Eastern and North African young people get jobs. He has in mind people like his cousin, a dentist, who graduated from his university with top honors but cannot find meaningful work.
“Youth in the Middle East and North Africa face very high unemployment rates, even though they are very well educated,” Al-Jarani said. “The opportunities simply are not there. I think there are ways for startup incubators and small business consultative services to help them grow their markets and create jobs.”
Al-Jarani says the bigotry and racism he has sometimes faced as an Arab Muslim growing up in the United States after 9/11 is partially what propelled him toward his goal. “In sixth grade, a girl came up to me on the playground and told me to go back to my own country,” he said. “I was born in Northern Virginia, my favorite music was hip-hop and I loved to watch Hollywood films,” he added. “I had never experienced this idea of myself as ‘Other.’ ”
That incident, however, prompted an exploration of his complex identity as both an American and a Muslim—“those two things aren’t mutually exclusive,” Al-Jarani said—and drew him closer to the region of his ancestry.
Al-Jarani is the recipient of a 2014 Harry S. Truman Scholarship. In 2013, he was awarded a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship to study Arabic in Jordan, and he represented UChicago at the McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is co-founder of the Phoenix Development Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit providing free business development services to organizations on the city’s South Side. Twenty University of Chicago students have received Gates Cambridge Scholarships since the award’s inception in 2001.
“Yusef is a brilliant young man with a strong sense of public service,” said his advisor Robert Pape, professor in political science and co-director of the Program for International Security Politics. “His knowledge and insights on the politics of Libya are especially penetrating. He has been a leader at Chicago, and I have every confidence will be a leader at Cambridge and much beyond.”