UNC-Chapel Hill’s 51st Rhodes Scholar: Sarah Mackenzie ’20 on the connections between poverty and participation in the criminal justice system

Sarah Mackenzie ’20 of Calgary, Alberta, has received the Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a fully funded postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford beginning this fall. The recent graduate is one of 11 Canadians to receive the honor, and she is the 51st Rhodes Scholar from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, according to the University’s announcement of the award on November 23.

Sarah got the call just after midnight.

“I was just pacing around my apartment, waiting for the call, talking to Chuck [Lovelace] a little bit and some of the other candidates,” said the Rhodes Scholar-elect, who described herself as still “in a bit of shock.” 

Sarah is the 32nd Morehead-Cain to receive the Rhodes and one of two Carolina students to receive it this year. The other UNC awardee, Peter Andringa, graduated in 2020 with degrees in journalism and computer science.

Established in 1902, the Rhodes is one of the oldest and most prestigious international scholarship programs. Selection is based on academic excellence, character, leadership, and commitment to service.

As an undergrad, Sarah was involved in the Chapel Hill-based Community Empowerment Fund, a nonprofit that facilitates transitions out of homelessness and poverty. Through her work with the CEF, Sarah and two others used race as a lens through which to analyze the Town of Hillsborough’s development plan with respect to land use policies, economic development regulations, and resource management. 

“We were trying to really think about how race is predictive of what sorts of services you’re going to be given by the town and how your neighborhood is treated,” said the alumna, who earned degrees from the College of Arts & Sciences in public policy and global studies, with a minor in Arabic. “It was important to think about racial equity as a tool to evaluate what growth would look like for [Hillsborough].” 

Sarah used her work for the CEF to complete her undergraduate honors thesis, which identified disparities among races with respect to pre-trial detention rates in her home province of Alberta. Reporting to a court or parole officer, for example, may seem to have little to do with race, but Sarah said her research revealed disparities correlated with race with regard to who is or is not detained in the province. 

Her research found that defendants who live in indigenous communities outside of the city have more difficulty complying with court orders and are, therefore, more frequently detained or penalized than urban dwellers facing similar charges. 

“That’s a different understanding of bias and discrimination, but I think it’s really where conversations surrounding racial equity and discrimination are heading,” said Sarah, who was also deeply involved with the Campus Y’s Criminal Justice Awareness Action Group as a student.

A Carolina Honors laureate, Sarah served as an honor court member, a teaching assistant in the global studies department, and one of two scholar directors on the Morehead-Cain Scholarship Fund board of directors. She is also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the most prestigious academic honor society in the United States.

Following her graduation, Sarah was named a Thomas W. Ross North Carolina Leadership Fellow through the public policy department. She researched the economic and social impact of COVID-19 throughout the state and served as the team lead for a project on poverty, housing, and food insecurity. 

Since July 2020, Sarah has worked full-time as a client advocate at the Center for Appellate Litigation in New York City with a focus on defending indigent clients in criminal appeal proceedings throughout Manhattan and the Bronx.

Once the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, New York City has struggled to provide sufficient access to social services for the clients the center represents, according to Sarah, particularly for the city’s homeless population.

“We really try to humanize our clients, and we don’t minimize the extent of the harm that they caused the victims in their case,” she said. “But we try to place it in its appropriate context.” 

In summer 2019, Sarah also worked as a mitigation intern in the Special Litigation Division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where she helped provide legal representation to indigent adults and children. 

The alumna plans to study research methods for evaluating interventions and policies, as well as evidence-based practice and policy in relation to children and families, poverty and inequality, mental health, refugees, drug use, violence and injury prevention—a course of study the University of Oxford calls the MPhil in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation, offered through its Department of Social Policy and Intervention. Sarah said the program will allow her to build on the educational background in public policy that she gained at Carolina.

“I found that the research component of my undergraduate experience was really formative and something that I had just barely scratched the surface of,” she said. “I wanted a two-year program that would enable me to work on a longer-term thesis and project and also refine some of my analytical and research skills.” 

While the connections between poverty and participation in the criminal justice system remain important to Sarah, she said the Rhodes Scholarship offers a unique chance to follow her intellectual curiosity in new directions as well.

“I think what really excites me about Oxford is the potential and opportunity to have my interests and my discipline expanded and to encounter new projects that are beyond my current academic scope,” the alumna said. 

Although much uncertainty remains in the United Kingdom due to COVID-19, Sarah said she’s confident that her time at Oxford will still be a “positive and enriching experience,” no matter what. 

“If the past year taught us anything, it’s the importance of being flexible and cautious,” she said. 

The Rhodes Scholarship, founded and administered through the Rhodes Trust, covers university fees and related travel costs and includes an annual stipend for two years. The program also provides scholars with opportunities to secure research grants and attend conferences abroad or conduct additional fieldwork. There are more than 7,000 members worldwide in the Rhodes Scholars fellowship.

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