“I come from a very small town in Virginia, so knowing a language that’s spoken world-wide makes me feel more connected to a global community,” said LAIS major Meredith Gleason, ’10, about her passion for the Spanish language. “When I didn’t want to go a day without speaking it, I realized I needed to make it my major. It’s opened so many doors for me and has allowed me to really become immersed in an entirely new culture.”

During her first year at Richmond, Gleason heard members of an international volunteer organization, Projects Abroad, speak at the University’s Office of International Education.

Gleason was immediately interested in getting involved and signed up for an AIDS/HIV project in Mexico. When that particular service project was cancelled, she was offered a placement at a pediatric hospital in Guadalajara working with children undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

“I’ve never regretted it,” Gleason said of accepting the position. “It was a heartbreaking job but also heartwarming. Since most of the children come regularly, you form very close relationships—they learn to trust you.” While working at the hospital, Gleason read books, played games and spent time talking with the children who came in for treatment.

“The parents were so grateful that there was someone they could trust their child with so that they could run an errand or speak privately with the doctor. They were so generous, inviting me to their homes or cooking me local meals,” she said. “It was really amazing to be a part of a family’s life in that way.”

While in Mexico, Gleason traveled to the states of Guanajuato and Michocán, as well as to Puerto Vallarta to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. She spent five days working on a turtle conservation project in the beach town of Tecomán. Though Gleason has fond memories of the time she spent traveling, she remained most moved by the children with whom she spent so much time.

“One of the most memorable instances of this trip was when I was sitting with an eight-year-old girl named Marisol during her treatment. Her mother had a meeting with the doctor, so I was the only one there to hold her hand,” said Gleason. “Even though she barely knew me, she clung to my arm when she was getting her IV put in, knowing she could trust me to comfort her. It sounds silly, but it really felt like I was doing my job and helping someone to the best of my ability.”

The trip helped Gleason decide that, while she does not want to work directly in medicine, she does want to continue helping people in Spanish speaking countries and sharing her passion for the language at home.

“Before going on this trip, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this major, but I learned and experienced so much while I was in Mexico—I really felt like I was able to do something with my Spanish,” she said.

Gleason is taking French and Portuguese classes this fall, as well as finishing her LAIS major. She is also finding ways to integrate her two interests—public health and the Spanish language—into her academic program. She has spent three semesters translating at the Henrico Department of Health and Human Services’ low-income clinic and will continue her work there this year. She will also teach a Language Across the Curriculum (LAC) section that integrates with the Core course.

“I hope that LAC will not only let me be able to share my passion for Spanish with incoming freshmen, but will also help me decide if teaching Spanish is something I want to do,” Gleason said.

Whatever the future holds for Gleason after graduation, it will no doubt have been shaped by her time in Guadalajara.

“It was such an amazing experience,” she said. “I am so lucky to have gone.”