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Class of 2017: Grad sets off to change the world, one policy at a time

From Model UN in high school to the real thing in the Big Apple, Leah Schmidt sets her sights on grad studies in geopolitical affairs

Signing up for the University of Calgary campus Model UN influenced Faculty of Arts grad Leah Schmidt's undergrad activities. She's now deciding where to pursue graduate studies in interdisciplinary gender studies and political science. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Jennifer Allford

That day back in high school, Leah Schmidt had no way of knowing that going to a meeting after class would change her life. “I was dragged to a Model UN meeting by one of my debate partners,” says the new Faculty of Arts grad. “I fell in love with this whole system of international diplomacy and international relations that I never knew existed.”

Earning top grades in her double major — international relations and women’s studies — was just part of the enriching experience she had over the next six years at the University of Calgary. Schmidt worked with about 10 different organizations, holding executive roles with four different clubs and co-coordinating the Students' Union Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

But the very first thing she did at the university was sign up for the campus Model UN. “When I joined the team in my first year I was very shy,” says Schmidt. “It was quite small and a little bit disorganized but full of amazing people. And it was fun, so I stuck with it.” Schmidt joined the executive, eventually becoming president, and helped grow the club “six times over.” It became one of the top 50 teams in North America in 2015, beating even Princeton.

And then, this last semester, she ratcheted from the Model UN to the real deal, working as a junior political adviser co-op student with Canada’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York City. Schmidt helped support Canada’s work on the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, as well as the United Nations Commission on Disarmament.

“It was a pretty cool opportunity,” she says. And while she’s realistic about “major setbacks” in geopolitical affairs, she believes “the world can be improved and we can achieve equality and we can achieve more pragmatic inclusive policy solutions. You have to believe in something bigger.”

That’s exactly what Schmidt has always done, says Dawn Johnston, associate dean (teaching, learning and student engagement) in the Faculty of Arts. “She is curious and hard-working and completely committed to social justice,” says Johnston, who taught Schmidt and worked with her on campus social justice projects. “I fundamentally believe that she is going to do great things in this world — largely because she already has.”

Teri Jones worked with Schmidt in the university’s Leadership and Student Engagement office. “One of the things that I admire the most about Leah is that even though she has a million and one things going on at any moment, she has the ability to be completely with you,” says the co-ordinator, orientation and first year experience. “She’s very present and very committed.”

Schmidt is back from New York City and deciding where to pursue graduate studies in interdisciplinary gender studies and political science. Her options include a Fulbright to study at Columbia University and offers from Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics.

As she looks back at her time at UCalgary, she’s more than grateful for that long list of extracurricular activities. “What you learn in the classroom is super important, but extracurriculars is how you get experience, how you connect with other students, and how you find out what you’re interested in,” she says. “If I hadn’t done extracurriculars I don’t think I would have known what I wanted to do or what I was capable of.”