A group of students at the Kenyan Parliament
Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: From First-Gen Grad to African Studies Expert: How Lahra Smith Became a Georgetown Professor

Lahra Smith grew up thinking she’d 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 College of Arts & Sciences. She’s also the director of the African Studies Program.

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

So when the opportunity came up to study abroad in Zimbabwe as a first-generation college student, Smith seized her chance and fell in love with the African continent.

“[Zimbabwe] made me feel like the world is this big place, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to think about it. I wanted to learn more about it,” she said. 

Over the next few years, Smith graduated from college and worked a short stint in Africa with the U.S. Agency for International Development before pursuing her doctorate in political science at UCLA and landing at Georgetown.

Today, Smith is working her dream job as an associate professor with a joint appointment in the School of Foreign Service and College of Arts & Sciences. She is also the director of the African Studies Program. On the side, she helps students facing similar challenges she faced as a first-generation college student, serving as a mentor for underserved students in the Georgetown Scholars Program and Community Scholars Program.

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

Behind the CV: Lahra Smith on Travel, African Studies and Being a First-Gen Grad

A lifelong yearning to travel: I come from rural New Hampshire, and I come from a family that did not travel very far, so the idea of travel is very important to me. I don’t really know where it came from except that I felt there was a bigger world than New Hampshire. I was very much shaped by the Cold War and learning about the Soviet Union and wanting to understand more about those kinds of global relationships and rivalries.

Lahra Smith sewing in a dimly lit room in Zimbabwe
Lahra Smith volunteering at a women’s sewing cooperating in eastern Zimbabwe while studying abroad in 1995.

The class that changed my life: I went into college thinking I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so I thought I wanted to do journalism as a major. What changed my life was one professor. I took an anthropology class that just kind of rocked my world. I loved anthropology, and then I ended up going into political science, and it just 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 to was Zimbabwe [when I studied abroad.] Zimbabwe in 1995 was a really dynamic and hopeful place. It was only 15 years after Zimbabwe had gotten independence from white minority rule. Living in Zimbabwe with young people who had both been through this difficult period but also were incredibly hopeful about the future was exciting. It made me feel like the world is this big place, and I wanted to be a 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 I credit Kenyans for turning me into a political scientist because I lived and worked in Kenya after my undergrad, and it was during a very politically exciting time in Kenya. Many Kenyans love to talk about and engage in politics with passion. Right after undergrad, I was hired to work on a presidential initiative called the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative [in USAID]. We were working on thinking about the intersections of conflict and development aid differently in the Horn of Africa. 

I love doing research because: I love that I can see a question out there in the world, and then I can 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 sort of person who needed to be in charge of my own research agenda.

My pitch to students to study Africa: It is a continent that is taking off and has all the markers of the things that made other parts of the world take off such as a youthful population and a creative, energized and hopeful population. It’s part of why there’s so much migration. Most of that migration is people moving within the continent rather than off of the continent because they see a lot of opportunity within Africa. I think it’s a continent that is really on the rise and in the next 50 years African countries will be the place to be and the place to know.

Lahra Smith and her students in 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 got to Georgetown: I finished my dissertation, and I was lucky enough to only spend a year in between [finishing my dissertation and landing a position at Georgetown.] In many ways, this is kind of the dream job for me. I was trained in African studies, and I was hired into the African Studies Program. Now I have a joint position in the Department of Government and African Studies. It’s the dream position for me because I get to be both focused on African studies as an interdisciplinary space thinking about a region of the world, but I’m also in the Government Department, 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 been amazing. 

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 to my family — I have seven brothers and sisters — as well as my new family with my husband and children, but also to the mentors I’ve had. I’ve been lucky enough to have amazing faculty who believed in me but were also passionate about what they did. That’s what I try to bring to my teaching is this sense that what we’re doing is something incredibly valuable.

How I support first-generation college students: I like my students to know on the first day [of class] that I am a first-gen grad because I think especially at Georgetown, there’s a kind of perception among our students that [their professors] all went to the Ivys. I went to all public universities for all of my education, and I got an amazing education and am 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’s also similar, and I at least want to tell students how I did it and how I want to support them.