Building Community Connections — Virtually!

by Melissa Nix

Laura Gooding participated in one of Amizade’s first virtual service-learning experiences: a series of webinars we designed for the Vira I. Heinz Program. Keep reading to learn more about her and what she enjoyed about the webinars.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I am currently a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh in the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs where I am pursuing a Master’s degree with focuses in Security and Intelligence Studies. I completed my undergraduate degree at Pitt as well where I majored in Anthropology and minored in French. I’m originally from a small town about an hour outside of Pittsburgh called Monaca, but now I live in the city. When I’m not studying, I work as a Graduate Student Assistant to the Vira I. Heinz (VIH) Program. I am also currently working as a student leader for the University of Pittsburgh chapter of Women in International Security (WIIS). Additionally, I just accepted an internship with the State Department working as a Digital Business Requirements Analyst. 

What made you decide to participate in the VIH Program?

I knew when I started my undergraduate degree that I really wanted to be able to study abroad, but I also knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to afford it on my own so I was on the lookout for scholarships when I arrived on campus my freshman year. I was at an honors scholarship opportunities presentation when I first heard about the VIH Program. I really liked that it was targeted at women who had never had the opportunity to travel outside of the U.S. before. Upon learning more about the scholarship, I realized that it wasn’t just a check to go abroad—it was a leadership development experience that focused heavily on mentoring and building a support structure for participants. As someone who was still trying to find my voice and learn how to network, it seemed like an amazing opportunity for me to achieve my study abroad goals and grow as a leader.

Laura with friends during study abroad
Interior of a church in Toulouse

Where were you originally planning to study abroad before everything moved online?

I actually was able to study abroad with the VIH Program before the pandemic began. I studied French art and architecture in Toulouse, France in the summer of 2018. One of the focal points of my studies was historical churches in the area, examining how the architectural styles and artistic decorations used acted as means of expressing political power during the Middle Ages.  I had the chance to visit a medieval fortified town and castle in the nearby town of Carcassonne and study the church there as well.  Through my studies of art history and language, I also learned about the history of Occitania, a nation that included the majority of southern France until it fell under the rule of the French monarchy around the end of the 13th century. I was able to see examples of Occitan language and culture, and well as see historic landmarks from that time period. 


The city of Carcassonne

Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to participate in the webinars?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to the webinars. However, they reminded me of several of the workshops and programs I have attended throughout my time with the VIH Program. What all of these programs have in common is that they aim to expose participants to new ways of thinking about the world around them and to be respectful and inclusive of the cultures they interact with (whether it be on their campus, in their hometown, or abroad). I think in the age of Covid-19 these webinars really allowed me to not only connect with other Viras (the women who participate in the VIH Program), but also learn more about topics and learn from more people that I normally wouldn’t have access to.

What did you enjoy about them?

My favorite part of the webinars was the exposure to community activists and social justice workers from all around the world. My experience studying abroad was more in depth than a webinar, but it was very specific to the area of the world I was studying in. Amizade’s webinars brought in speakers with experience in a variety of different countries. Our first webinar featured Nate Siggers, the Appalachia Site Director for Amizade. Our second webinar we had guest speaker Nick Grimes who talked about his experiences in the military and how it led him towards becoming a community activist, and in our third webinar we were able to speak with Mr. Brown and several other members of his community in Jamaica about The Petersfield Galloway Benevolent Society and his work in community development. The webinars also featured speakers from the VIH Program, so it was really nice to see my fellow Viras present and hear about their experiences with these topics.

Has participation in this webinar series inspired you to travel abroad when it’s possible? If so, where do you want to go and why?

I definitely want to travel again when it is possible. If anything, though, these webinars have made me want to be more intentional and think more critically about the communities I am able to spend time in abroad. I think that it is easy to think that when we travel abroad the experience is about “us,” but it’s important to take into account the local population and the effects that our presence and actions can have on communities. Asking questions like how can we be global stewards and protect the cultures and communities that welcome us? Are important, and I think these Amizade Webinars make participants engage with these questions. I have a long list of destinations I would like to travel abroad to, but I think my next trip will be somewhere in Central America. I have been (slowly) working on my Spanish and I love Latin American culture. 


Thanks, Laura, for sharing your story with us!

If reading Laura’s story inspired you to start planning your a virtual program, contact us! Or, visit our virtual service-learning page to learn more.