Marcia Layton Turner
University of Pittsburgh

Philanthropist Vira I. Heinz, the first female board member of a multinational corporation and recipient of the Chancellor’s Medal from the University of Pittsburgh, recognized “the transformational impact of international travel,” says Sarah Wagner, director of the women’s leadership program at the university that’s named after Heinz.

To make it possible for women who have never spent time abroad to do so, The Heinz Endowment funds a comprehensive leadership program with two experiential learning components: the international experience and the community engagement experience.

Its mission is to “empower young women with no international experience to make their mark on the world,” says Wagner, adding that it’s also designed to pave the way for women to be engaged in their local communities.

The year-long leadership program brings together three women from each of 15 Pennsylvania universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, where it is headquartered.

The students are also provided training and between $5,000 and $7,500 (based on financial need) toward an immersive summer international experience. Other schools include Arcadia University, Temple, Duquesne, and Washington and Jefferson, among others.

Applicants must be women with a minimum 3.0 GPA who have never stepped foot outside the U.S. It also specifically targets women who are LGBT, those registered with their disability office, racially diverse STEM majors and Pell Grant recipients.

Over the summer, the 45 women participate in a three-day pre-departure retreat, followed by at least four weeks abroad, and then a re-entry retreat in the fall. During that final session, students begin work on encapsulating their experiences to share with the community. The form of that presentation might be a round-table discussion, an artistic performance or a debate, says Wagner.

While the goal is to expose women to life outside the U.S., “the real learning comes after the international experience,” as the women share their experiences with others in the program, says Wagner. “Many students comment that they’ve never been in a network where women are so supportive of each other. Relationships are a beautiful outcome of this program.”

Inside the Program

  • Of the 100 to 150 program applicants, about three-quarters are Pell Grant recipients.
  • Strengthening language skills and résumé-building are two ways participants gain leadership experience.