About the Carol Larson Endowed Fund

This year, our featured fund for the eighth annual Pitt Day of Giving was the Carol Larson Endowed Fund, which supports underrepresented students in study abroad. To learn more about what and who the Fund represents, our Executive Director for Global Experiences, Jeff Whitehead has shared his experiences with Carol.

In 2023, global education lost one of its great paragons with the passing of Carol Larson. Known throughout the entirety of the field, Carol had an impact on the lives of tens of thousands of Pitt students, led the global education community into an ethos of inclusivity, and tirelessly worked to break down the barriers to entry for underrepresented students in study abroad. Her legacy of mentorship has laid the foundation for hundreds of individuals currently working within global education to carry this mantle forward. Her passing sent a shockwave of grief through the field as universities mourned her loss and celebrated her influence not only at Pitt, but also on the modern study abroad office in the United States. Those who have come after her can still see the impact that she made throughout the 1990s and 2000s ripple throughout the field. For this reason, we have created the Carol Larson Endowed Fund to provide meaningful financial aid for University of Pittsburgh undergraduate students to participate in intercultural learning experiences.

Carol was hired into global education by one of the field’s champions, Angi Yucas, the founding Director of the Pitt’s Study Abroad Office. Together, they led Pitt’s campus from an afterthought in global education to one of its true powerhouses. Carol quickly assumed responsibility for outreach, inclusivity, scholarships, and advising. She revolutionized how study abroad offices conduct each of these enterprises by working tirelessly long hours, meeting students where they were, in clubs, classrooms, recruiting events, hallways, even elevators. It has become common for global education offices to spout phrases like: Study Abroad is for Everyone and Everyone is Welcome. Not only was Carol one of the architects of that ethos, but she also believed it with every fiber of her being.

I met Carol as a wayward potential study abroad student in 2001. She coached me through the initial phases of the study abroad process, and before I knew it, my (now) wife, Nicole and I were on our way to London to engage in an experience that shaped my entire life. But Carol and I didn’t know each other yet. I was one of many students she helped coach through the process. During a site visit to the Pitt in London center in 2002, I had my first meaningful conversation with Carol. We were given an opportunity to share our impressions of the program with Study Abroad Office leadership, both Angi and Carol listening intently to the feedback they received. I am not sure why Carol flagged me – she must have seen something in me that I have not yet seen in myself. At the end of our short conversation, she asked what I planned to do after I graduated. The truth was that I had no plans.

We spent a few more minutes probing what might be interesting for me before she announced that I would be one of her interns. I laughed it off, and we went our separate ways. I entered my senior year without much direction, floating between classes I liked, but nothing comparing to the experience I had just had on my study abroad program. It truly was the most important part of college for me (and countless others like me). As I approached my final term, I remembered the conversation Carol and I had had in London, and I reached back out to Carol. She welcomed me to the largest intern cohort the Study Abroad Office had ever seen, and we canvased the campus, spreading the word about this wonderful experience.

At the end of my senior year, Carol made an appointment with me. I thought it was just going to be a warm goodbye, a welcome gesture after an enormously impactful internship. It was not. Instead, she offered me summer employment. That summer turned into a job at the front desk. That turned into a program management position where I had the opportunity to run Pitt in London myself, truly giving back to those who came after me by working to build and improve the program. Carol and I became a formidable team, and we realized that what we were doing together at Pitt was special. And it was starting to receive national attention. The projects became larger and larger and soon, Carol and I found ourselves creating a documentary on study abroad for students with disabilities, continuing the ethos of inclusivity that was in her DNA. Simultaneously to this, Carol worked with one of my peers, Sarah Wagner, to build the Vira I Heinz Program into one of the most unique leadership and development offerings in the country.

Time passed, and Pitt became recognized as a top sending institution, winning awards for its programming and overall internationalization of the campus. Instead of Carol taking credit or assuming greater leadership roles in the field, she let many of us leap over her. She told me once that she would judge her own success by the individuals that she helped become successfully. Very suddenly, it was my turn as Angi achieved a top position with our London partner, leaving the Director’s chair vacant. Again, instead of assuming a role for which she was clearly in line, Carol encouraged me to take up the mantle. I spent the next 12 years of my life in that role, and I had the great fortune of having Carol by my side for many of them. During this time, I befriended her son, Mike, and Carol and my relationship became far deeper than a collegial one. I like to think that she was as happy about Mike and my friendship as she was with all the accolades we had received together in study abroad. Mike and I bonded through baseball, we traveled to China together, we became inseparable. Carol had helped forge a friendship that will last a lifetime.

When she retired, I remember feeling very nervous, like I was not ready to lead so complex an organization without her tutelage and mentorship. She comforted me by telling me that she would always be there, that I all I had to do was call. And for many years, I did, seeking advice, counsel, laughter, belief in the mission. I knew that when I doubted myself or the reason we were working so hard to promote this lifechanging experience, I had only to pick up the phone and there would be a friendly voice (and the offer of spaghetti and meatballs and wine) on the other end.

The sands of time continued to run through the great sieve of life, the pandemic kept us isolated, and as we began to emerge and reconnect in 2022, suddenly, Carol was gone. The timing was uncanny. I was welcomed back to Pitt as its Executive Director of Global Engagement after a brief period in the corporate world. So I didn’t think anything of seeing Mike Larson’s name hit my cellphone. I figured that word had reached Carol, and he was calling to congratulate me. But he was crying on the other end of the line, and I knew instantly what that meant.

Carol taught me so many lessons during my time with her. Her last lesson was as important as the first. She had traveled to Paris at 80 years old, something I only wish I will be able to do. She spent a week enjoying the city and its treasures. She returned from Paris and spent Easter with her beloved family, Mike, Maria, and their son, Myles. She returned home, went to sleep, and did not wake up. It reiterated to me how important it is to live while we have the time, to not wait, to challenge ourselves to take risks given how fragile life is and how quickly we run out of sand, and to truly appreciate each day we have. And although I wish we had had more time together, I know she would agree – she lived a full life. Unafraid. Daring. Bold. Passionate.

Since her passing, Mike and I have made donations to the University to create a scholarship endowment in her honor. We have each pledged $15,000 to breathe life into this scholarship in the hopes that its growth will catch fire based on the impact that Carol has had on our field and the students who passed through our office during her time and thereafter. This will continue her legacy and belief that study abroad is for everyone, a pledge that we have made to inclusive and welcoming of all and to continue to encourage underrepresented students to take this brave step. In her honor, we will continue to break down the financial barriers that prevent students from having experiences that we consider vestal, vital to the development of human beings in the 21st century. After all, interconnectivity is not a choice but a certainty, and only through experiences like study abroad can students gain the perspective and competence necessary to engage meaningfully to help solve the world’s great problems.

- Jeff Whitehead