By Jane Handa ’21
W&M’s Global Research Institute kicked off the fall semester with a packed house Insider Insights event featuring Will Smith ‘14. Smith is co-founder and executive director of LEAD Africa, an organization that empowers youth in Africa through education and sports. Smith, who was mentored by and collaborates to this day with Government Professor and Center for African Development Co-Director Phil Roessler, continues to pay it forward in his collaborations with W&M students. Among the event attendees were students involved in LEAD Africa, students and faculty involved with GRI, and members of W&M’s athletics community.
Will Smith ’14 with W&M Professor and Co-Director of CAD, Phil Roessler.
At the talk, Smith discussed LEAD Africa’s recent developments, including the launch of a second academy in Morocco, and plans for the future. He also gave advice to students eager to learn from his experience. Jack Ruszkowski ’21, who was involved with LEAD Africa through the GRI Summer Fellows program, attended the event and was struck by Smith’s story of the process it took to build LEAD: “A large part of what made the talk so engaging, for me, was hearing Will’s personal story of entrepreneurship. Listening to Will’s journey, from start to the present, was a fantastic opportunity to better understand the thought process behind the making of LEAD as we know it today.” Liz Rosen ’20, who was also involved with LEAD Africa and attended the event, said, “I really liked hearing about Will’s emphasis on humility when asking for help from the W&M community, and how he described that alumni connections helped to develop the academy. It was great to hear about how he was able to use that help to build MFA from the ground up.”
The event also gave students an opportunity to reflect on their own research and personal impact experiences through GRI. Ruszkowski said, “Two years ago I worked with refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers at a UNHCR partner organization in Rabat, Morocco. If the children currently attending LEAD’s academies one day go on to become influential leaders who promote stabilizing and progressive initiatives in their respective communities, I feel optimistic that there might one day be fewer reasons for people to flee their homes in desperation, as so many of my friends who are refugees in Morocco have had to do. Being able to contribute to a project that furthers knowledge about best practices for developing future leaders in Africa is both exciting and deeply meaningful to me.”
Smith presenting at GRI’s Insider Insights.
Students who attended the event also recognized the power of the W&M alumni network in getting involved in organizations, like LEAD Africa, that make an impact. Rosen, who has worked at AidData, participated in PIPS as a Research Fellow, and traveled overseas as a GRI Summer Fellow, said, “GRI is great at connecting W&M people to the larger community through events like DC Day, connections with an alumni network, access to internships, and research opportunities that gives students independent research experience.”