Grace Leonard, '12

Grace Leonard, '12

December 19, 2011
A balance of classroom learning and community engagement informs senior's study of anthropology

Grace Leonard, '12, chose University of Richmond after a campus visit impressed her with UR's commitment to civic engagement. During her four years at UR, the North Carolina resident and daughter of UR alumni has used numerous civic-engagement opportunities to inform her academics.

As a first-year student, Leonard joined Build It, a Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) initiative based in Highland Park, a low-income urban neighborhood in Richmond's Northside. She volunteered as a tutor and mentor with the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond, a nonprofit dedicated to helping at-risk children and youth reach their academic and leadership potential.

Leonard soon began drawing connections between her anthropology major and her service work. "In Introduction to Anthropology we read “In Search of Respect," an ethnography about drug dealers in East Harlem, New York City," Leonard said. "It opened my eyes. The class curriculum addressed some of the issues I saw in Highland Park."

During May term of her first year, she traveled to Peru as part of a community-based learning public policy course on global health and human rights taught by Dr. Rick Mayes of the political science department.

"We visited a Peruvian orphanage several times," Leonard said. "I found it interesting to compare what happens to disadvantaged kids in different cultures based on the government’s role.

"In Peru, impoverished parents are not always able to afford school for their children but can rely on extended family or orphanages to care for their children. In Richmond, parents living in poverty send their children to school, and often rely on extended family, but more often live amidst violence, drugs, and under-resourced education systems."

The CCE awarded Leonard a Burhans Civic Fellowship to complete an internship at Youth Life in summer 2010. Readings assigned by her fellowship mentor, Dr. Jan French of the anthropology department, and by Dr. Bedelia Richards of the sociology department inspired Leonard to undertake a Highland Park geography project with her students.

"The project got the kids involved in the process of community development instead of people from the outside coming in and doing it for them," Leonard said.

After completing her fellowship, Leonard spent fall semester 2010 with an Office of International Education partner institute in Ghana, where she studied several nongovernmental organizations involved in educating children.

"Northern Ghana has a lot of subsistence farming," Leonard said. "One NGO program, School for Life, holds school in the evenings so that the kids can attend after they're done working on the farms. They train and pay a local person to be the teacher. The community identifies the children who would benefit from the program."

Now Leonard is incorporating what she observed about nonprofit work in Richmond and Ghana into her senior thesis. She is also creating a digital story on the history of Highland Park.

And she just completed Dr. Jennifer Erkulwater's Poverty and Political Voice, a political science course in which students examined poverty by studying political theory and volunteering weekly in Highland Park schools and nonprofits.

"Through PoVo [Poverty and Political Voice], I've been able to take the culmination of my four years of volunteering in Highland Park and look at the larger structural policy issues," Leonard said. "I've gained a deeper understanding of the issues, and I've used my real-world experiences to challenge academic theories."

Integrating traditional academics with civic engagement optimizes learning, Leonard said.

"There are so many adults and mentors at Richmond willing to support you in pursuing your interests and passions," Leonard said. "A lot of colleges don't have this culture. I want to continue learning what it means to be an active citizen and a good neighbor."