A photo of two women facing each other and smailing. The woman on the right is holding the women on the left's hands. Behind them is a crowd of people standing on a staircase.
VCU alum Aisha Kamara meets with the governor of Huambo Province in Angola, who is sharing her thanks to the U.S. Department of State and the American people for clearing landmines in the province 10 years previously. (Contributed photo)

Study abroad inspired VCU alums to pursue global careers

Now far from campus, Calvin Watson and Aisha Kamara built on their academic experiences to embrace international opportunities.

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James “Calvin” Watson would not be living and working in Brussels, Belgium, if it weren’t for his study abroad semester – in Perth, Australia.

“Going to Australia through the Curtin University exchange program helped me change my career path. It was truly amazing,” the Virginia Commonwealth University alum said of his 2016 experience.

Watson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2019 from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences after transferring from Longwood University, is one of many graduates working around the world after studying overseas through the VCU Global Education Office.

He said the experience opens a realm of academic and career possibilities – as well as a student’s perspective on the world.

“When you get around people who are very different from you in terms of color, religion, the way they speak, the way they dress and things like that, you’re able to see yourself in a different light,” Watson said. “I think it’s very empowering.”

Since studying in Australia, Watson has worked in Colombia, Serbia, Sweden and Costa Rica. In the latter, he served as a wildlife biologist, observing sloths and training people from around the world on how to survive in the rainforest.

Now in Belgium, he is a research assistant at KU Leuven’s Center for Molecular and Vascular Biology. His work focuses on white blood cells – particularly neutrophils, which protect against infection.

Reflecting on the breadth of his travels and experiences, Watson is grateful for VCU Global Learning's education abroad offerings within the GEO. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the help of Sarah Carrier,” he added, citing the office’s associate director of global learning.

Aisha Kamara’s exchange program in Shanghai, China, at Fudan University paved the way for her current position as a foreign affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Kamara, who earned her bachelor’s degree in international studies from the School of World Studies in 2016, had to adapt to varied situations while studying in China. And that has served her well.

“You have to learn how to figure things out on the fly without much direction,” Kamara said, adding that living abroad “teaches you a lot about confidence. You’re out of your comfort zone, and you learn how to have a voice to speak up for yourself and to make friends with people that have different understandings of life. And I think that it makes you become bold as a person.”

At Fudan, Kamara embraced cultural opportunities that broadened her experience. Among them: She joined a dragon boat racing team in hopes of making friends.

“It was helpful,” she said. “It was a lot of fun. A lot of us were from different countries, so it was a great way to make friends from all over the world.”

After graduating from VCU, Kamara took a year off to work in South Korea as an English teacher because she wanted “to gain a better understanding of East Asia,” she said. She began her tenure at the State Department in 2019 while pursuing her master’s degree in international relations at George Washington University.

“By the time I graduated, I was able to secure a really great job at the department as a program manager,” Kamara said.

She encourages VCU students to explore study abroad opportunities because “they can really take your career and you in a different direction that you would have never imagined.” Since her program in China, Kamara has traveled personally and professionally to about 20 countries.

“My goal is to just continue to see everywhere in the world,” she said. “Professionally, I really love being able to dig into a region of the world and have a really good understanding of the politics, the economics and what needs to be done to best support their development.”

And she emphasized that study abroad became a way for fun to lead to a future.

“I think a lot of students think that it’s just like a fun experience to do,” Kamara said, but the experience also gave her direction and clarity. “I’m exactly where I want to be now. I would encourage students to do something that is just not the norm – to be able to show your own resilience.”

For more about education abroad opportunities, visit VCU’s Global Education Office or email abroad@vcu.edu.