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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2013 / 05 

Graduate profile: Victoria Heath combines international savvy with compassionate service

May 8, 2013

Victoria Heath and companion from Kenyan refugee camp
Victoria Heath (right) stands with Sophia, a staff member at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.

From Saudi Arabia to Kenya, Victoria Heath of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a graduating senior majoring in history and political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, has been to places many Virginia Tech students will never see.

She has used that unique perspective to guide her education while capitalizing on and even creating opportunities to serve others.

Heath’s dream, which she admits will be challenging, is to work for the Foreign Service in the consular track. In that capacity, she recently reflected on how she might "invent the future."

“I will be ‘inventing the future’ by shaping and reforming the presence of America in the world, hopefully in a more optimistic light than today,” began Heath.

Thoughtfully, she explained that she would “have a hand in immigration policies, ideas, reform, and handling educational exchanges, tourism, cultural exchanges, and American ex-patriot issues – all integral parts of America's domestic future and important components of our global future.”

“I want to continue to make the future of America one that all American citizens and future citizens can be proud of; one that embraces others, learns from everything possible, and continues to challenge itself to be better,” said Heath.

Heath continues her travels and career preparations this summer, traveling to Prague in July to participate in the American Institute on Political and Economic Systems study abroad program at Charles University.

After that, she will be joining the Great Oaks Charter School Tutor Corps in Newark, New Jersey and “possibly adjoining that with Americorps for the next year or two.”

Preparing to live the dream

Heath, who calls Dhahran home, went to school in Saudi Arabia from sixth grade through high school. As an expatriate, Heath lived in a compound and “went to school with about 80 different nationalities,” she said.

The appreciation she gained for other cultures while living abroad translated to her educational pursuits. As a University Honors student, Heath tackled a yearlong research project focusing on how a driving protest by Saudi women in 1990 influenced women’s issues in that country.

Her passion for other cultures led her to volunteer with the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement in Roanoke and helping with a variety of projects, including English instruction. “It was a small environment, and I got to know the refugees really well,” Heath said.

Noting Heath’s overseas background, her interest in researching other cultures, and her practical experience working with refugees, Brett Shadle, associate professor in the Department of History, recruited her to take part in a service learning opportunity at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The camp, created in the early 1990s for refugees from Sudan, is home to more than 100,000 people.

In the spring of 2012, Heath completed an independent study to learn about the camp, its history, and those who call it home. For four weeks last summer, she worked with refugees at the Kenyan camp in a service learning immersion trip. With an interest in gender issues, Heath supported gender and youth programs at the camp.

"Victoria was careful to avoid the paternalism that all too often afflicts those who seek to help those in dire circumstances," said Shadle. "She understood that her duty was to serve, but also that she gained as much as anyone from her time in Kakuma. Her experiences will undoubtedly inform her future work, which she will approach with inquisitiveness and humility."

“I helped interview women and families about gender-based violence,” Heath said. “I met a lot of amazing women, who have been through things you never would expect anyone to go through, and they still had a smile on their face.”

To keep the children active and out of trouble, sports are encouraged at the camp. Heath helped organize a basketball tournament.

Last fall, Heath completed independent research to further her service learning experience, investigating female genital mutilation within Somali communities in the refugee camp and methods to deter it.

Her interest in undergraduate research led Heath to become an editorial board member of the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Historical Review. She says she hopes to submit some of her own work after graduation.

Beyond academics, Heath is ardent about helping others. She serves on the Virginia Tech Community Literacy Corps, helping students in the classroom of a local middle school several times a week. In addition, she has volunteered for Virginia Tech’s Relay for Life event, participating on the recruitment committee.

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