A portrait of Leslie Bolda standing on a boat with water behind her.
Leslie Bolda, in Bariloche, which is in the western part of Argentina situated on a lake called Nahuel Huapi surrounded by the Andes Mountains. Contributed photo.

VCU alum is loving her time in Argentina, helping to teach English

Leslie Bolda got the chance to live and work in South America thanks to a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant award.

Share this story

Leslie Bolda is spending her days in Argentina working as an English language assistant. In her spare time, she is soaking in the local culture.

The Virginia Commonwealth University alum wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country when she was applying for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program during her senior year at VCU in 2019.

“I narrowed down my options based on which countries interested me the most. I think Argentina interested me the most because of a Spanish teacher I had in high school who told us how much she loved her experience when traveling in Argentina,” said Bolda, who graduated from the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2020 with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and Spanish and is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa studying chemistry education.

She applied for the Fulbright scholarship through the VCU National Scholarship Office.

“I thought it would provide me an amazing opportunity to continue improving my Spanish as well as allow me to explore a new culture and a new country,” she said. “I had loved my [previous travel] experience in Spain, so, although it didn’t quite seem logical as a prospective chemistry Ph.D. student, I wanted to give it a shot and apply.”

She was scheduled to go to Argentina in 2021, but because of the pandemic her grant was pushed to 2022.

Bolda arrived in Puerto Madryn in the province of Chubut in the southern part of Argentina in mid-March and will be there until November.

“I go to classes 12 to 14 hours a week. On some days, I participate in classes as if I were a student. On other days, I may give a presentation on an aspect of the U.S. that I think may be informative, or I may lead conversation/discussion activities.”

Becoming her own advocate

One of her biggest challenges is advocating for herself.

“It’s something I have been working on since being here. I am my biggest supporter here, so it is incredibly important that I work to speak up for myself when I want to do something, when I need help, and/or when I feel uncomfortable in a certain situation,” she said.

Bolda, who grew up in Richmond, got interested in chemistry in high school because of her teacher.

“She was right out of college, and she was different than what I perceived as a scientist, which I think inspired me and pushed me to realize that I could be a scientist,” Bolda said.

The love of Spanish started in middle school and continued through Bolda’s Spanish immersion program in high school and beyond.

“My intrigue for the subject continued to grow as I learned about the more complex grammatical rules and explored literature from Spanish-speaking countries. I went in high school to study in Spain for three weeks in Salamanca. In college, I studied abroad for one semester in Granada, Spain,” she said.

The move to VCU

Bolda transferred to VCU after a year at American University.

“I decided to go to VCU to become a high school chemistry teacher initially. So many teachers have inspired me over the years, that it seemed only right that I choose to be a teacher myself. I chose VCU because of its location in Richmond as well as for its School of Education,” she said.

SuzanneRuder, Ph.D., an organic chemistry professor at VCU, was the first to introduce Bolda to chemistry education research.

“It broadly focuses on how students learn chemistry and how instruction can be altered to improve their learning,” Bolda said, adding that after a conversation with a teaching assistant she realized chemistry education research was a good fit. “It was the perfect outlet for both my interests – chemistry and language – because it is an intersection between chemistry and the social sciences. This work opened up a whole new world for me and my future. Because of Dr. Ruder’s mentorship, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in chemistry to study chemistry education.”

Meredith Sisson, Ph.D., assistant director of the VCU National Scholarship Office, has also played a paramount role as a mentor for Bolda.

“She helped me every step of the way when I was applying for the Fulbright. I truly believe that I would not be in Argentina right now if I hadn’t received her guidance and support,” Bolda said. “She went above and beyond when assisting me, and I’m incredibly grateful.”

Bolda’s experience in Argentina is teaching her a great deal, she said.

“Living and traveling abroad gives you a sense of compassion, empathy and self-sufficiency that I don’t think you would gain otherwise. It forces you to become more confident and willing to step out of your comfort zone to make sure your needs and, sometimes, wants are met,” she said. "This will help me tremendously in my future both personally and professionally. Additionally, I hope to take with me the kindness and generosity I have received here from the people I have met.”