Mikaila Smith is a Plan II senior with concentrations in international affairs and Chinese from Sydney, Australia, by way of Austin, Texas. She has been named a 2017 Rhodes scholar, which will provide for her to pursue a Master of Science degree in refugee and forced migration studies, followed by a Master of Science degree in global governance and diplomacy at the University of Oxford. She is also a Rapoport Service scholar, a two-time Presidential Scholarship winner, a Bill Archer fellow and recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship from the State Department to study Chinese.
What is your reaction to being named a Rhodes scholar?
It is both an opportunity and responsibility. I take it very seriously as an investment in my potential, and that is an enormous blessing and one that will give me incredible opportunities — primarily, of course, enabling me to continue my education at a world-class institution, Oxford.
Where have you volunteered?
In Austin, I’ve volunteered with Posada Esperanza, an incredible organization that provides housing and resources to immigrant and refugee mothers and children. My mom volunteers there and introduced me to the community. I’ve also volunteered with AVANCE-Austin, a renowned nonprofit that focuses on parent and child education programs and works specifically with the most vulnerable Latino populations in Austin.
Another wonderful organization is the Interfaith Action of Central Texas, which does a lot of multifaceted work — I’ve volunteered specifically with their refugee services program and as a teacher at iLearn, their academic summer camp for refugee children who are newly arrived to the U.S.
I was also a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. The common thread between these experiences comes from an interest in addressing injustices or inequalities — especially in access to education and health care for underserved populations.
How did you get started as a yoga instructor?
As many people do, I had very low self-esteem in my early teens. My mom took me to my first yoga class at age 15, and I loved it almost instantly. The teacher really emphasized being OK with yourself and your body, no matter where you were in your practice. Yoga got through to me very quickly, and I started focusing in a much healthier way on mental health, confidence and self-acceptance. I had never thought about being an instructor, but a few years later when the opportunity presented itself, I really wanted to be able to spread the same gift that had been given to me.
What are your goals for the future?
I recently received some very sage advice about goal setting, which was essentially to let go of the ideas of who I am and be open to who I may become. I have some ideas about my professional goals, but ultimately I’m driven by a desire to challenge myself, search for fulfillment in the work I’m doing and stay connected to the issues I care about. I’m trying not to think too specifically about the future, but instead let myself be guided by my philosophies and passions, and be open to evolving.
I’ve been interested in the work of international organizations like the United Nations for a while, and am looking forward to seeing how my upcoming internship at the U.N.’s Global Compact Office influences me.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
There’s an idea I read that nothing you do in life is valuable if you are not kind and good to the people directly around you: your neighbors and family, or the stranger sitting next to you on the bus. This idea of a prerequisite, baseline level of being in the world resonates with me and is something I’ve been trying to work on. I’m proud of different things — volunteer work I’ve done, papers I’ve written, projects I’ve worked on — but by this philosophy, those things don’t mean anything if five minutes ago, someone walked by me in need and I didn’t do what I could to help them.