Leah Rapley (née Davis) graduated from YES Prep Southeast in 2008 and from Davidson College in 2012. She has studied or worked abroad in Ghana, Bolivia, and Japan. She is now a graduate student at George Washington University, pursuing a Master’s degree in international education. We interviewed Rapley about her experiences studying and working abroad.
Tell us about what you’re studying in graduate school.
My focus is on education in developing countries. I’m thinking about ways we can make sure people that are marginalized are getting the education that they need to live a quality life.
What are you plans after you finish your degree?
I’m starting to apply to be a Foreign Services Officer. I’m very passionate about youth development and student empowerment. If I’m selected as an Education Officer, I’ll be working with kids in developing countries to help them become agents of change in their country.
What sparked your interest in international affairs?
I went on an international service trip to Ghana when I was a junior at YES Prep. I worked with youth in Ghana and learned more about our world. That trip made me want to help people outside of our country.
At Davidson, I studied anthropology, and I knew I wanted to do something international. I went to Ghana again in the spring of 2010 to take a few classes. That following fall, I went to Bolivia. That trip sparked my interest in marginalized groups. I learned about Afro-Bolivians and the fact that they were almost wiped out of existence. You couldn’t even access information or articles about them. It was frustrating but also struck me that there was a need and an opportunity. I decided to write a children’s book for my final project. I worked alongside a group that was an instrumental part of the movement to get Afro-Bolivians acknowledged. I traveled with them and wrote about their pride. My oldest sister illustrated the book. It was very collaborative. The book was published in Bolivia and distributed in libraries across Bolivia. I don’t know how many books are still in print, but you can access them online. At the end of the project, I read the book to children. That may have been the first time many of the students were hearing about Afro-Bolivians in a positive way. One of the teachers came up to me and said it was really powerful. That’s when I realized that I was doing something far bigger than myself.
You taught in Japan after graduating from college. What was that experience like?
I grew a lot in Japan personally and spiritually. I was away from my support system. I was away from everything I was familiar with. I did not know Japanese. That was an experience in itself. I was one of three foreigners in the town. And it was a huge challenge for me to get over that hump. But I learned the importance of establishing your own support system and building your own community. Ultimately, Japan confirmed my interest in education and in wanting to provide quality education for students in less developed countries.
Besides sparking your interest in working internationally, how else did YES Prep contribute to your success?
One of the fundamental things I learned from YES Prep is the importance of your role in this big world of opportunities. Mr. Barbic used to say: leave a place better than you found it. He was talking about cleaning up after yourself, but you can think of it in a bigger way. I want to leave this world better than I found it. I want to make sure I’m giving back. I’ve really carried that message into the things I’m passionate about.
Any last thoughts?
I think one of the things I’m most appreciative of is the relationships with my former YES Prep teachers that I’ve been able to maintain. There are some key people who really poured everything into me and were really invested in me. It’s wonderful they’re still in my life.