Reflection anchor of LEAP Symposium

Mount Holyoke’s annual LEAP Symposium was infused with reflection and what one student dubbed “good chaos.”

By Kevin McCaffery

When the pandemic’s travel restrictions kept Esha Sridhar ’22 from returning to Mumbai this summer to launch a community-based organization to counter domestic violence, she did what any enterprising Mount Holyoke student would do — she worked virtually to initiate the new program, connecting with her collaborators at night.

But that is only half the story.

During the day, Sridhar also worked on another summer project on-campus with Rick Feldman, lecturer in Entrepreneurship, Organizations and Society, to develop a general mentorship and leadership skills program useful in starting and running any enterprise.

“It was a summer of chaos,” Sridhar, a sociology major with an EOS minor, said. “Good chaos. I did not expect the projects to work well together, but they did. They flowed into each other.”

Reflections on this summer of double-shifting formed part of what has become, over more than a decade, Mount Holyoke’s largest signature event showcasing student achievement: the annual LEAP (or Learning through Application) Symposium, which took place on the afternoon of Oct. 22.

In classrooms and lecture halls throughout the Science Center, 174 students in 42 panels recounted experiences of summer internships and independent projects, many of them funded by the College as part of its groundbreaking Lynk program’s commitment to enable all students to have meaningful internship and summer research experiences. 

Because of campus visitation limitations imposed by the pandemic, many of the sessions in the symposium were presented only on Zoom or in hybrid form, though online participation matched in-person attendance.

And although the usual crush of parents, friends and alums could not attend in person this year, the day brought many members of the on-campus community to learn about summer research and internship experiences that took place across the globe, which were grounded in Mount Holyoke’s commitment to building rich connections between students’ academic work and practical applications, both in terms of career exploration and devising solutions for real-world problems.

Panel discussions

According to Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Sociology and Director of Nexus Eleanor Townsley — a key figure in devising the annual event and in strategizing the best ways to align student internships with their academic focus — asking student presenters to reflect on their work through panels is an effective way for them to gain new insights on their experience and to create new knowledge.

“We become so overwhelmed that we often don’t take the time for reflection on what we have done,” Townsley said. “We want to carve out a space where students reflect. The students who do it report a high degree of satisfaction.”

At the same time, Townsley noted, each student presenter was asked to work with a first-year student to ensure that presentations would be accessible to wider audiences not keyed in to specialized fields of interest — an important skill in any work or professional environment.

Among those joining the four students on Sridhar’s panel was Leah McLeod ’22, a neuroscience and behavior major and a  from Miami, Florida.

The focus of the panel, on how to communicate with and empower people through chaotic situations, such as those brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, was a central issue for McLeod, who worked to found , a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, to make and supply masks to essential workers and those in need around the United States and the Caribbean to help counter the spread of the pandemic.

That nonprofit, instituted soon after McLeod returned home from South Hadley in March 2020, has since made over 10,000 masks, scrub caps, pillowcases and similar items and donated them to hospitals, homeless shelters and other organizations in 89 cities and five different countries, including the U.S. Leah built her summer research project on this foundation, interviewing recipients about how wearing masks influenced social interactions.

What she found was that masks have had a deep effect on how much we trust each other.

“Masks have diminished the ability to categorize emotions,” she said. “Trust has been affected. Relationships between doctors and patients have been affected.”

COVID-19 as a factor

Of course, COVID-19 affected internships this past year too, according to Jenny Watermill, senior associate director for experiential learning and exploration. The numbers of Lynk-supported internships and summer research projects were down for the summer of 2020 to 250 from a yearly average well north of 325, while many students interned remotely or turned to individual projects on campus, often working directly with faculty members.

An additional effect of working through COVID-19 has been a sense of pride among students who were able to forge ahead under difficult conditions.

“There’s a tremendous interest in LEAP this year,” Watermill observed. “Students who were able to engage in internships are really proud of meeting the challenge, of making it happen.”

Art and commerce

One student who pursued an individual project this summer was studio art major Embry O’Leary FP’23, who shared their experience working as art director for the independent chapbook press , a press founded by Mount Holyoke student Jem Karass FP ’23 to amplify the voices of transgender and queer creatives. At the symposium, O’Leary discussed what they learned from making art for queer individuals as a queer individual and how indie publishing spaces can be used to uplift creative voices that are not often represented by mainstream publishers.

For O’Leary, the opportunity to work directly with writers in presenting their materials through the press’s chapbooks was uplifting and informative. 

“It was definitely a wonderful and validating experience as an artist to hear writers sounding so excited to receive their art,” they said. “I’d love to be able to explore more of this interdisciplinary creative exchange as I continue in my education and career.”

Art also played a part in the internship of Francesca Petruzzelli ’22. But in her case, it was art fused with business.

Participating in one of the first panels of the afternoon, the art history and economics double major with a Nexus in global business, spoke about her four summers at startup clothing designer and manufacturer American Giant, based in her hometown of San Francisco.

Over the course of the past four summers, Petruzzelli has worked in almost every part of the business, which specializes in a line of American-made sports and leisure apparel.

If her two majors represent the artistic and quantitative side of her personality, the experience at American Giant has been an ideal fusion, she noted. Petruzzelli’s unique experience of interning at the same firm every summer of her Mount Holyoke career has allowed her to gain deep insight into how American Giant reacts to market developments and seeks to produce products that answer fluctuating consumer demands. 

“I feel that I have been part of the growth of a startup,” she said. “There are even products that I’ve conceived and that have been produced and that I’ve been able to wear and seen other people wear.”