From first-generation student to professor of African studies at Georgetown

Lahra Smith grew up thinking she would travel the world as a foreign correspondent for a major daily newspaper.

Lahra Smith on a park bench on a sunny day
Lahra Smith is an associate professor with a joint appointment in the School of Foreign Service and the College of Arts & Sciences. She is also director of the African Studies Program.

Born and raised in rural New Hampshire, the closest Smith came to foreign travel was when she visited neighboring Canada. But traveling was always on her mind, a dream she wanted to make come true one day.

So when the opportunity arose to study abroad as a first-generation college student in Zimbabwe, Smith jumped at the chance and fell in love with the African continent.

“(Zimbabwe) made me feel like the world is so big, and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to think about it. I wanted to know more about it,” she says.

Over the next few years, Smith graduated from college and worked for a short period in Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development before earning her doctorate in political science from UCLA and ending up at Georgetown.

Today, Smith is working on her dream job as an associate professor with a joint appointment in the School of Foreign Service and the College of Arts & Sciences. She is also director of the African studies program. She also helps students who face similar challenges as first-generation college students and serves as a mentor to underserved students in the Georgetown Scholars Program And Community Scholars Program.

In the latest Behind the Resume, get to know Smith, how she discovered her passion for African studies, and what it means to her to be a first-generation college graduate.

Behind the resume: Lahra Smith on travel, African studies, and being a freshman

A lifelong desire to travel: I’m from rural New Hampshire and come from a family that hasn’t traveled far, so the idea of ​​travel is very important to me. I don’t really know where it came from, other than I felt there was a bigger world than New Hampshire. I was deeply shaped by the Cold War and learning about the Soviet Union, and I wanted to understand more about those kinds of global relationships and rivalries.

Lahra Smith sews in a dimly lit room in Zimbabwe
Lahra Smith volunteered at a women’s sewing workshop in eastern Zimbabwe while studying abroad in 1995.

The lesson that changed my life: I went to college thinking I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so I thought I wanted to major in journalism. What changed my life was one professor. I took an anthropology class that turned my world upside down. I loved anthropology, and I ended up going to political science, and it forever shaped how I think about the world.

My first time leaving North America: I was the first person in my family to have a passport, and the first place I went was Zimbabwe (while studying abroad). Zimbabwe in 1995 was a very dynamic and hopeful place. It was only fifteen years after Zimbabwe gained independence from the white minority government. It was exciting to live in Zimbabwe with young people who had experienced this difficult period, but were also incredibly hopeful about the future. It made me feel like the world is so big, and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to think about it. I wanted to learn more about it.

How Kenyans Made Me a Political Scientist: I like to say that I appreciate Kenyans for making me a political scientist, because I lived and worked in Kenya after my bachelor’s degree, and it was during a very politically exciting time in Kenya. Many Kenyans love to talk and engage in politics with passion. Right out of college, I was hired to work on a presidential initiative called the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative (in USAID). We were thinking differently about the intersections of conflict and development aid in the Horn of Africa.

I like to do research because: I love that I can see a demand in the world and then pursue it. I can try to answer that question and contribute to the world of knowledge. I enjoyed working for an agency like USAID, but I realized I was the kind of person who needed to be in charge of my own research agenda.

My pitch for students to study Africa: It is a continent that is booming and has all the hallmarks of the things that have boomed other parts of the world, such as a youthful population and a creative, energetic and hopeful population. It is one of the reasons why there is so much migration. Most of that migration consists of people moving within the continent rather than outside, because they see many opportunities within Africa. I think it is a continent that is really emerging and that African countries will be the place to be and the place to know for the next fifty years.

Lahra Smith and her students in the field in Kenya with a mountain in the background.
Smith with her students in Kenya as part of an alternative spring break in March 2024.

How I ended up in Georgetown: I completed my dissertation, and I was fortunate that it was only a year in between (finishing my dissertation and landing a job at Georgetown). In many ways, this is kind of a dream job for me. I was trained in African studies and was accepted into the African Studies Program. I now have a joint position in the Department of Government and African Studies. It’s the dream position for me because I can be focused on African studies as well as an interdisciplinary space thinking about a region of the world, but I’m also in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I get to work with students who are thinking about the discipline of political science. This is the end of my 18th year. I’ve been here for a while and it’s great.

What it means to me to be a first-generation college graduate: I feel so indebted to the people who helped me get here. Certainly for my family – I have seven brothers and sisters – and for my new family with my husband and children, but also for the mentors I have had. I was fortunate to have great teachers who believed in me, but were also passionate about what they did. That’s what I try to convey in my classes: the feeling that what we do is something incredibly valuable.

How I support first-generation students: I want my students to know on the first day (of class) that I’m a freshman because I think especially at Georgetown there’s kind of a perception among our students that (their professors) all went to the Ivys. I went to all the public universities for my entire education, and I got a great education and I’m super privileged to be at Georgetown, but here I am. The world is different in 2024 than it was in 1995, but in some ways it is also similar, and I want to at least tell students how I did it and how I plan to support them.