Leigh Smith earned his PhD from the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC in 2004. He is now the Dean of the Institute of American Universities, a small, degree-granting educational institution in Aix-en-Provence, France that caters to international students. While working on his PhD, Leigh researched the reappearance of tropes and themes from Dante’s Inferno in twentieth-century Italian, French, and American novels. His comparative literature training, which taught him to draw together seemingly disparate subjects, has served him well in his current position as an academic dean. In his daily activities, he works with students and professors, visits classes, balances the budget, and performs other tasks that keep the school running smoothly. As a graduate student, he learned to focus on multiple tasks and ideas at once while still being attentive to the bigger picture, a skill he uses every day when he juggles the varied demands of his job as a dean.
Reflecting on his time at UNC, Leigh underscores that the intersection of a public education and great mentorship at UNC makes him a proud alumnus of the university. Leigh chose to come to UNC because of the faculty and reputation of the university, the funding and teaching opportunities available at UNC, and his family connections to North Carolina. Leigh fondly recalls the mentorship he received from Dino Cervigni, Diane Leonard, and Lilian Furst. One of his favorite memories from his time as a student was when UNC won the 1995 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, although he regrets not going to more basketball games.
Leigh continues to engage with his research through teaching comparative literature. Each year, he teaches two to three comparative literature courses to students at the IAU, which allows him to continuing teaching a subject he is passionate about. Since his time at the IAU, the institute has transformed from a study abroad institution into a degree-granting institution and developed more partnerships with top US universities. He takes pride in being a part of this growth and in using his diverse skill set to confront challenges and obstacles the institute faces. For students interested in a career similar to Leigh’s, he stresses the importance of an open mind and persistence when seeking a job. He also emphasizes that building his professional network at UNC allowed him to make connections and form relationships that continue to serve him in his professional life. His final piece of advice for students is straightforward: “Learn to write well. Please. Please. Please. If you learn to write well, I promise you it will always serve you.”
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