“It wasn’t like she was asking us, more like she was informing us,” recalled her father, Mark, with a laugh. “She had attended an assembly at her school that day and learned about the plight of people living in poverty and with disease in that part of the world, and she wanted to go there to help.”
Ms. Smylie did end up traveling to Tanzania in the summer of 2010 with students from across the country, but none from her own high school.
On Monday, April 7, Ms. Smylie died in a single-car accident while traveling with members of her study-abroad group during a spring break trip to a national park in northern Namibia. She was 21 and a junior at the University of Michigan.
“What remains with me most deeply is her enormous human sympathy: She felt from the inside of others’ lives, with principled and active care,” one of Ms. Smylie’s English professors at Michigan, Ralph Williams, wrote in an email to the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. She had been a student in his class Memoir and Social Crisis last fall.
“My last message to Rachel was one written in late January and ended with a farewell which I often give my students: ‘Go in happiness, stay in joy, and return in safety,’” he wrote in the paper. “It breaks my heart that she could not do the last.”
Traveling to Tanzania had a profound effect on her, one that sparked an interest in public health in Africa and left her even more determined to return. She gained a greater sense of purpose after living among members of the Hadza tribe, playing with young people who were HIV-positive or had AIDS and helping dig the foundation for a new dormitory for local villagers, loved ones said.
“It was life-changing for her in many ways,” said her mother, Sallie.
Earlier this year, as a second-semester junior majoring in English and anthropology and volunteering at a local AIDS/HIV clinic in Ann Arbor, Ms. Smylie returned to Africa to study at the University of Cape Town and was about to begin volunteering at an AIDS/HIV clinic there.
Growing up in Oak Park, Ms. Smylie made an indelible impression on teachers as well, even as a kindergartner at Whittier Elementary School. Noticing one day that her teacher, Nicole Fish, was having a rough day, she created a card for her.
“Dear Mrs. Fish, I could see you had a bad day soooo I thout that this maybe would make you feel better,” she wrote, and included the following poem:
“Roses are red,
Voilets are blue,
What ever you do
I love you.”
“Rachel was a student I could never forget,” said Fish, who has kept the card and included it in her condolences to Ms. Smylie’s parents. “She was bright, friendly, loving, happy — the type of child that every parent (and) teacher hopes for. She had it all.
“She made a day better just by being near you. She cared deeply for all those around her and made an effort to help those who needed it the most. She was smart but never bragged. She was thoughtful and intuitive in her everyday life. She was someone who, once you met her, you could never forget.”
The 2011 OPRF graduate played volleyball in high school and was a four-year member of its lacrosse program.
During high school, she was also a member of the Oak Park and River Forest Children’s Chorus. She performed with the group at Carnegie Hall and went on several international tours, including to Spain, Italy, Portugal and Morocco.
Ms. Smylie’s family visited her in Cape Town less than two weeks before the accident.
“What I remember most is how happy she was,” her father said. “She was on top of the world, loving every minute of her time there.”
Ms. Smylie’s family has established the Rachel G. Smylie Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship was established to provide financial support to middle and high school students to participate in service-oriented trips in Africa through The Road Less Traveled, the Chicago-based agency through which Ms. Smylie took her trip to Tanzania.
“Rachel was special, someone I strongly believe would have made a big difference in the lives of so many,” said Jim Stein, director and co-founder of The Road Less Traveled. “She was a leader and deeply committed to the idea of creating a better world. But mostly, and what I’ll always remember about her, is that she was an absolute joy to be around.”
Ms. Smylie was also a member of a youth group at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in Oak Park and had made several mission trips, including one to South Dakota, where loved ones say she assisted families living on a Native American reservation.
“I know Rachel made a lasting impression on my life and heart that will never go away,” said Fish, who was also Ms. Smylie’s teacher in first grade at Whittier. “Her impact on this world will long be felt by so many of us who were lucky enough to know her.”
Survivors also include two sisters, Lauren Smylie Gage and Anna Smylie.
A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. May 3, at the First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., Oak Park.
See more information on Rachel, her Memorial Scholarship and Geography of Hope.