When Randi Mansell, ’13, left to study abroad at the Catholic University of Lille, France during the spring of her junior year, she immediately began looking for a way to continue her stay through the summer.

As a Bonner Scholar, Mansell had already spent two summers working in community engagement. After her first year at Richmond, she worked for a local homeless shelter in her New Hampshire hometown. The next year, with the help of a Deborah L. Marsh Civic Fellowship, she worked for the Richmond public schools. Continuing this trajectory seemed the perfect opportunity to extend her immersion in France.

But cultural differences in community service proved to be more of a challenge than she expected. “Many people there had a different way of looking at community service—it was either enforced or it was religious,” Mansell says. “They didn’t understand the academic component we have here at Richmond.”

Mansell soon redirected her search to focus on an organization with a similar structure to one in the United States. The Red Cross, she says, was the obvious answer — and they had offices in Lille.

“I translated my CV into French, spoke with the director, and they said they’d love to have me,” Mansell says. “It was supposed to be about a three-month commitment, but ended up being about a four- to five-month commitment.”

There are four basic components to the Red Cross in Lille, Mansell says. These components include the front desk and administrative services; a mail service for homeless people or refugees without a fixed address; a clothing service offering people either used clothing for free or a small fee for used clothing; and a food service, which would allow qualified individuals access to food and supplies.

Because the volunteer coordinator had not worked with a full-time volunteer before, Mansell says she often initiated her own work, which involved everything from helping the volunteer translator with public documents to stocking shelves in the pantry. She also frequently worked at the front desk, which she says improved her language skills.

The biggest takeaway for Mansell, however, was an unexpected one.

“I met a population of people I had never come into contact with besides seeing them begging in the streets — the Romanian-Bulgarian gypsies,” she says.

Mansell noticed when she arrived in France that people treated the gypsies poorly. She says she didn’t at first understand why this population was marginalized, but while she was working at the Red Cross she began to understand the root of the problem.

“They don’t correspond to the French culture, they have a hard time fitting into it, and they don’t really have any desire to,” Mansell says. “As a French person, I can imagine that can be very threatening.”

As a double major in leadership studies and French, Mansell saw connections in the question of outsiders and insiders and she hopes to return one day to France to further explore the subject. In the meantime, though, she’ll be keeping her commitment to community a bit closer to home as she begins teaching high school English in Alabama with Teach for America.

“I’ve been planning to do it since freshman year,” Mansell said. “It seemed like a good way to be very hands-on, but still have a job. I think it’s a good program, and a great way to inspire kids to do more.”