Reginald Gordon, CEO of the American Red Cross, Virginia Capital Region, rushed into the Richmond office on June 1, 2011, and asked if anyone could speak Spanish. Intern Nikki Cannavo, ’13, raised her hand.

An hour later, the Spanish-language media network Univision interviewed Cannavo at a Richmond-area Holiday Inn Express where the Red Cross was providing shelter and support services to survivors of a fatal bus crash.

The day before, a tour bus crashed on Interstate 95 just north of Richmond, claiming four lives, grabbing national headlines, and triggering a federal investigation of bus-company safety practices.

During Cannavo’s interview, an emotional scene unfolded in the hotel lobby as a woman broke into sobs after learning her relative had died in the bus crash.

It was Cannavo’s second day on the job.

Experiences such as this speak directly to Cannavo’s specific academic interest — leadership in times of crisis.

“I hope to understand more fully and put into action the insight that leadership in crisis emerges not only once a disaster strikes,” the leadership studies major said, “but most importantly in the planning and awareness beforehand.”

In addition to witnessing how the Red Cross responds to unfolding disasters, such as the bus crash, Cannavo has also seen how the organization acts proactively to prevent disaster.

For example, she has worked with a local fire department to educate citizens about fire prevention.

“The areas most vulnerable to fire are those with the greatest poverty,” Cannavo said. “Social-justice issues typically correlate closely with manmade and natural disasters.”

Her leadership studies coursework and her living-learning program—Leadership and the Common Good — have provided context for many of the social-justice issues Cannavo encounters through her work at the Red Cross.

“In Leadership and the Common Good,” Cannavo said, “we examined indicators of well-being and questioned who is included in the vision of the common good, who is left out, and why. Armed with this knowledge, I am tackling the question of who is most vulnerable in times of crisis and why.”

The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), which encourages students to grapple with pressing social issues such as this, awarded Cannavo a competitive $4,000 David D. Burhans Civic Fellowship to undertake the Red Cross internship complemented by an academic component mapped out by Cannavo’s faculty mentor, Dr. Douglas Hicks, professor of leadership studies and religion.

Cannavo has used her communications skills — in Spanish, writing, and photography — to good advantage in her internship. She has written blogs and taken photographs for the website and posted information on Facebook and Twitter.

A story she wrote and photographed about a Red Cross program that reconnected siblings who were African refugees will appear in the organization’s national publication.

Above all, Cannavo has found her internship experience rewarding. “It helps to know that you’re doing good,” Cannavo said, “and I have been impressed with the staff’s shared vision to help others.”

Proactive, educational outreach is just one way the Red Cross helps people, according to Cannavo. She illustrated this point with a story about the importance of Red Cross safety and CPR training.

“A local woman certified in CPR since 1988 had never used her CPR training until this Memorial Day weekend, when a 14-year-old boy was discovered at the bottom of a pool. She performed CPR and saved him.

“She has fibromyalgia and is in a wheelchair, but she saved his life. ‘If I can do this,’ she said, ‘anyone can.’ The only thing running through her mind was that she had another mother’s child in her hands. Failure was not an option.”

Through her storytelling, Cannavo highlights Red Cross efforts to prepare ordinary citizens for leadership roles in times of crisis.