As a first-year student, Rachael Merritt enrolled in a beginner Russian class with no prior knowledge of the language. Now, she is graduating from LSA with a double major in Russian and international studies and has been named a 2022 Rhodes Scholar. Her passion for Russian language and culture and commitment to defending democracy and human rights will carry her all the way to the University of Oxford, where she plans to attain master’s degrees in Russian and East European studies and in social science of the internet.
GROWING UP in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Merritt participated in an eclectic mix of activities. As an athlete, she tried track, basketball, diving, and golf. “I never wanted to pick just one thing. I was like a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” The most important event of her early academic life, however, was her participation in We the People, a national civic education competition. “That was the first real academic exercise that I did, and I loved it,” Merritt said. She and her team even won the national tournament for their category.
During the summers, Merritt fed her desire for adventure through travel and service. “Every summer, I just had it in my mind that I wanted to get out and meet new communities and people,” Merritt said. One summer, she worked in Montana in the horse-outfitting business, leading trail tours through Yellowstone National Park. Another summer, she helped her mother and her colleagues working in an orphanage in Sri Lanka.
DURING HER FIRST YEAR AT U-M, Merritt set herself further on the path of global citizenship. Although she had studied Spanish in high school, she wanted to try a new language to combine with her degree in international studies. “I have no familial connections to Russia. I had never even heard Russian spoken before,” Merritt said. “But I just started listening to a bunch of YouTube videos before college and then took my first course and after that, it just kind of just snowballed.”
WHILE MASTERING the Russian language, Merritt also became involved in studying Russian culture and social issues. Early on, one of her graduate student instructors, Aleksandra Marciniak, sparked her passion for all things Russian. More recently, Merritt has been in contact with Russian journalists and activists. Partnering with Mary Elizabeth Malinkin of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, she organized a panel discussion of leaders from Russia’s LGBTQ community. “That was the first really independent, more impactful project that I did that will have lasting consequences,” Merritt said. “I was trying to bridge the gap between people in the diasporic queer community, and Liz definitely helped me develop my own form of leadership with experience.”
AS A STUDENT AT OXFORD and beyond, Merritt hopes to continue advocating for free expression, especially on the internet. “My biggest goal is to bring more transparency and public awareness to the happenings behind the screen of big tech,” Merritt said. By studying the role of information systems in society, she hopes to give ordinary people a stronger voice in how their information ecosystem is governed. “There’s going to be an entire restructuring of how private sector needs to interact with public sector,” Merritt said. Placing decision-making power in the hands of the broader public, she added, is the best way forward for democratic societies around the world.
Alexander Satola is a senior in LSA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.