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Pearson reflects on Gephardt Institute’s impact

Le’Aysha Pearson AB ’19, an alumna of the Civic Scholars program, chats with Congressman Dick Gephardt during a social gathering for WashU alumni held in Chicago earlier this year. 

By Le’Aysha Pearson AB ’19
A 2018 Civic Scholar, Le’Aysha contributed the following reflection about her experience with the Gephardt Institute, and how her civic journey that started here continues to shape her path.

My journey began with the Gephardt Institute’s Civic Scholars Program and a passion for civic engagement, and has led me to the fulfilling civic responsibility I now embrace in my role at McKinsey’s Connected Leaders Academy

As a Civic Scholar, I had the opportunity to hone my skills as a civic leader through a two-year experiential program that included funding a project development support for a full-time “Civic Summer.” For my Civic Summer, I delved into the world of social and emotional learning (SEL) in South African primary schools. I wanted to understand how SEL could bridge the gap for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, much like my own upbringing. SEL focuses on developing essential skills like emotional intelligence, empathy, and resilience, which are vital for personal and academic success. It was a subject close to my heart, as I had personally experienced the transformative power of support systems in overcoming adversity. 

During my research, I interviewed primary teachers from diverse backgrounds in South Africa. I discovered that while there was a mandatory curriculum called Life Skills intended to address the social and emotional needs of students, there was much room for improvement. Many students felt that Life Skills focused too much on topics like sexually transmitted diseases, rather than crucial social and emotional skills like self-confidence and building healthy relationships. 

My Civic Summer also opened my eyes to the persistent disparities in South African education, a legacy of apartheid. I witnessed the stark contrast between well-funded schools with heated swimming pools and those struggling to afford textbooks, with the former predominantly serving white students and the latter predominantly serving black, low-income students. This experience solidified my desire to make a difference in the field of international education. 

To further my understanding and broaden my horizons during my Civic Summer, I participated in a six-week-long educational research study abroad program in South Africa. This experience allowed me to witness the complexities of education in different contexts, from urban to rural schools, and to learn from NGOs shaping education policy and implementing programs. 

My Civic Scholars experience and my research in South Africa ignited a passion for educational equity and social justice. While I initially planned to design education programs worldwide to improve access to quality education, my path took a different turn. I now serve as a Senior Client Delivery Analyst at McKinsey’s Connected Leaders Academy, where I am a cohort lead, working on leadership programs that promote inclusion, equity, and talent development. I may not be in a traditional educational role, but my unwavering passion remains the same: leveraging the transformative power of education to empower underserved communities and dismantle barriers to equality in both professional and academic realms. 

The Gephardt Institute played a pivotal role in refining my vision, preparing me for my work with the Connected Leaders Academy, and preparing me for my future leadership roles. I benefitted from a rigorous curriculum, leadership training, and mentorship that equipped me with the knowledge and skills to be a more effective civic leader. It broadened my horizons and allowed me to see the potential for positive change both locally and globally. 

Civic engagement, to me, is the active participation in the betterment of our communities and society as a whole. It’s about recognizing our responsibility to contribute to positive change and taking action to address the issues that matter most. Being an engaged citizen means not only casting a vote but also being a responsible steward of our democracy, advocating for justice, and actively working towards a better future. As a civic leader, I see myself as someone who inspires and guides others in their journey of civic engagement, leading by example and fostering a sense of community and social responsibility. 

My journey from the Civic Scholars Program to the Connected Leaders Academy reminds me that civic engagement can take many forms. It reaffirms the idea that we can all contribute to positive social change, whether through traditional educational roles or within organizations committed to making a difference. The Gephardt Institute instilled in me a deep commitment to equity, inclusion, and justice. It taught me the value of empathy, active listening, and understanding diverse perspectives. These lessons guide my work every day, reminding me that meaningful change requires collaboration, respect, and a relentless pursuit of justice. The Gephardt Institute is a place where future civic leaders are nurtured and empowered. Its work in shaping engaged citizens and leaders is vital because it’s not just about addressing the challenges of today but also about preparing the leaders of tomorrow who will continue this important work. The Gephardt Institute is a place where ideas become action, where passion meets purpose, and where lasting change begins. 

Civic leadership is not confined to a single path. It’s a journey of self-discovery, growth, and dedication to making the world a better place. My journey is far from over, and I am excited to continue working towards a future where education is a powerful force for change and empowerment.