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Leahwillingham highlight 2


By Sasha Nyary

Be bold—don’t be afraid to ask strangers questions.
 
This was one of the crucial journalistic skills Leah Willingham, a senior at Mount Holyoke College, developed during the spring of her junior year. She spent much of her time walking the streets of Belgrade, looking for people to talk to and stories to cover.
 
One of her assignments during her semester abroad was to dig up stories in the capital of Serbia, report and write them, and if possible, get them published. But she didn’t know much Serbian.
 
“I was able to say, ‘I’m a journalist. Could I ask you a few questions? Do you speak English?’ ” Willingham said.
 
A few times she used a translator when the person did not speak English, but ultimately, not knowing the language taught her an important lesson about being a journalist.
 
“If I was ever nervous to approach people in a crowd in the US, I’m not any more,” Willingham said. “It’s so much more nerve-racking to approach a random person and try to speak another language.”
 
Learning to adapt—and jump in and speak the language—is one of the many benefits of studying abroad. That’s why it is such an important component of a Mount Holyoke education, said Joanne Picard, dean of international studies at the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives. For students to be successful in the twenty-first century, they need to have global competence, she said, noting that Mount Holyoke has a long and strong tradition of supporting study abroad.
 
“It's essential for students to engage with people different from themselves to deepen their understanding of global challenges and why different societies respond to them in different ways," Picard said. “Study abroad pushes students to think about who they are, and how they fit into the world—and their home country when they return.”
 
The College’s Laurel Fellowships provide need-based financial aid for study abroad to virtually every qualified student who applies, she noted. Willingham said she couldn’t have gone without one.
 
An English major, Willingham was accepted to a semester at the University of Edinburgh to study English literature, but she was also interested in journalism. She met with Picard and with her advisor and professor, Catherine Manegold, a visiting senior lecturer in English and a former prize-winning New York Times reporter. Through them she learned about the School for International Training’s study abroad program on peace and conflict studies in the Balkans. As part of the program she would learn the region’s history and study Serbian as well as journalism.
 
Willingham was hesitant at first. But then Manegold handed her a business card—she has a box of them in different colors, Willingham said—that read, “Notice what lights you up.”
 
“She said, ‘You seem really excited about this and you should pay attention to that,’ ” said Willingham, who still has the card. “She’s had experience working abroad and knows how valuable it is, especially as an undergraduate. And when else would I go to Serbia? I would not have done the program without her.”
 
Manegold, who described her student as “a writer with a great deal of talent and heart,” noted that Willingham’s experiences abroad will prepare her for a career in journalism and will serve as an essential part of her education. “American journalists who don’t see this country in a global context are impoverished,” she said.
 
Willingham is spending her second summer as an intern at her hometown newspaper, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire. She recently wrote a story about her experiences in Serbia. She also has interned at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. There, she covered the arts and completed a story about the experiences of undocumented students at Mount Holyoke.
 
The Serbian experience has been life-changing, said Willingham, who is also the news editor of the Mount Holyoke News and a peer mentor at the SAW (Speaking, Arguing, and Writing) Center.
 
“I realize how lucky I am as a student at Mount Holyoke to have the opportunity to travel like that,” she said. “I feel so grateful. This experience really changed the way I think about the world. I want to focus more on being a global citizen. I can see that no matter the subject, as long as you’re studying in only one language you’re still only seeing one perspective.”