Dec. 6, 2023
Meet-a-Ram: Amy Leap helps VCU students broaden their perspectives through study abroad
In the Global Education Office, she aims to expand access to life-changing opportunities.
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Amy Leap has an extensive social network. “I feel like I literally have friends all over the world,” said the assistant director of global learning in VCU’s Global Education Office.
As part of the Education Abroad team, Leap helps Virginia Commonwealth University students turn their dreams of studying overseas into reality. And having done so herself, she knows the lasting benefit of establishing diverse connections and building cultural understanding.
“The relationships that I have formed from my international experiences are probably the highlight,” Leap said. “I really value that I was afforded those relationships from my experiences studying abroad.”
Leap spoke with VCU News about opportunities that await students – and lessons from her own journey.
What should students know about global learning opportunities through VCU?
That it’s possible – and we are here to support them. We have an advising team dedicated to helping students find a program that they can afford, that’s going to help them stay on track with their major, and that’s of interest to them. I think so many students don’t give study abroad a second thought. They have some preconceived notion that they can’t afford it, or that they can’t do it because of their major, or that they can’t go where they want to go. But that’s literally what our job is: to help them break down these barriers to try to make it possible.
In a nutshell, what are the key benefits of studying abroad?
Getting out of your comfort zone and being forced to get to know locals in another community who have a different background and understanding and experience of the world – I think that’s the best thing that can come from study abroad. Interpersonal learning – how to be flexible and understanding, and just better at that communication – that’s one of the really lasting impacts.
What brought you to VCU?
I came to VCU in 2019, as I was looking to continue working in higher education but specifically in study abroad. I came from working at Randolph-Macon College in residence life, but I was really excited to work with VCU’s diverse population of students, faculty and a staff that was dedicated to increasing access to experiential learning opportunities. When I studied abroad as an undergrad, it totally changed the direction of my majors and my career. I wanted to get back into that work. Study abroad is not built into the culture across VCU, so it is a small percentage of students who study abroad. Having the opportunity to try to increase access was definitely the goal.
Talk about your travels and how they influenced you as a student and beyond.
I did my undergrad at the University of Mary Washington, and I was a Spanish and geography double-major – but I actually started as a sociology major. After I studied abroad in Spain during my freshman year summer, I decided to add the Spanish major; my goal was being able to converse with more people in the world and just to have broader opportunities for connection and understanding globally. I also studied abroad for a summer in Argentina as well as in Guatemala on a faculty-led program for geography, and that led me to return to Guatemala two times after graduation – once for an internship and then another for research, for an article I co-published with one of my faculty from undergrad.
Studying abroad continued opening doors and really transformed the next steps I took professionally and academically, ultimately leading me to get a master’s degree from SIT Graduate Institute in intercultural service leadership and management – which is a mouthful, but international education is a component of that. I did my practicum in Morocco. I was there for about five months working in a student affairs capacity with undergraduate study abroad students. I think it was that experience, which was both as a student but also as a semi-professional, that led me to want to continue doing this work.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
It’s seeing students grow as individuals holistically. Throughout the process – from applying to actually being abroad and then when they come back and are all excited, talking about challenges they had or growth points – that’s what it’s all about for me. I just came back from traveling for VCU. I think the highlight of this trip was actually talking to our students who are currently studying abroad. It’s a really different conversation than when they get back to the U.S. I was able to ask questions to help them reflect in the moment and think about something they might want to try doing before they finish their study abroad.
What is your favorite place outside the U.S.?
I really have liked everywhere I’ve been. I love Latin America – I’ve studied in Argentina, I’ve interned in Guatemala, I’ve backpacked in other places. It’s a very welcoming culture in Latin America. Morocco also feels like home; it’s just such a different culture all around than what I’m used to here. If I just had to say for traveling or for where I would love to move someday, it would be somewhere in Europe. I love the history and the lifestyle differences there. I just feel like the pace of life is more what I was built to live than here in the U.S.
You volunteer with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. Does this intersect with your VCU focus?
VCIC hosts the Prejudice Awareness Summit annually for middle school students, and I’ve been a facilitator for five years. We spend an entire day bringing together students from all the schools in the Richmond region, and we talk about prejudice and how to be inclusive – and how Richmond is a really diverse, intercultural place. While it’s not going abroad, students are still getting a really different cultural understanding of their peers. For me, I think at the core of this work are the relationships. And who knows? One day the students might come to VCU and I’ll see them for study abroad.
Editor’s note: Meet-a-Ram is an occasional VCU News series about the students, faculty, staff and alumni who make Virginia Commonwealth University such a dynamic place to live, work and study.
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