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10 Questions With 2023 Humanitarian Service Award Recipient Leslie Laing

State College is filled with difference makers and individuals focused on introducing more cultural equity to the area.

Leslie Laing happens to be an inspiring and vital piece within this movement.

At this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Conference, Laing was awarded the 2023 Humanitarian Service Award through the Forum on Black Affairs (FOBA). This service award was created in 1985 “to honor an individual who has provided outstanding service to African American citizens of Pennsylvania, particularly at any Penn State campus.”

To earn this award, the recipient can partake in services such as policy-making, research studies, the leadership of units, offices, programs or organizations, research studies, and other significant activities that positively impact African Americans within the commonwealth. 

Onward State had the chance to learn about Laing’s impact, her path to State College, and what has come to fruition through her efforts.

Onward State: Where are you originally from?

Leslie Laing: I am a New Yorker, born in Manhattan, and lived in Queens, the Bronx, and Long Island. Traveled the subways and express buses as I worked in New York City on 39th and Broadway for over a decade — thriving in the diversity of a big city. I moved to New Jersey and endured the daily commute until I left my job to complete my degrees.

OS: What was your dream career or goal during your time in college? 

LL: So, as a young woman growing up in the Bronx, during the 1980s, my dream was simply to earn a college degree. I am first-generation and so neither of my parents had a degree when they immigrated from Jamaica. Attending high school at a time when the nation was just beginning to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans and Clinton was signing legislation to make Dr. King’s birthday a national day of service, I was inspired to apply to Boston University, where King earned his theology degree. I was accepted to BU but naïve to all the challenges a black, out-of-state, full-time, residential student would face during that time.

Navigating and garnering support emotionally, academically, and financially on my own proved too difficult, and I wasn’t able to complete my degree the first time. I left Boston with $14,000 of debt that needed to be repaid before my academic transcript could be released. So transferring to another institution was not possible.  

It took several years before I attempted to re-enroll at Hunter College as a part-time commuter student while working in New York City. This proved overwhelming and I withdrew after one semester. Eventually, the desire to complete my degree became greater than the work life I was enjoying. I left the big city altogether and decided to prioritize my education.

My final attempt led me to enroll at Montclair State University where I completed my bachelor’s degree with honors. I was able to find a mentor in Student Affairs and that experience changed my life and provided a vision for a dream career. My mentor gave me opportunities to explore and encouraged me to pursue a Master’s degree. I had never even thought that possible. Post-graduation, I applied for a position at the university and used educational benefits to finance a Master’s degree.

OS: What guided you to Penn State and what is your position with the university?

LL: It is a God-sized story with a leap of faith that led me to Penn State. I accepted a position as a coordinator for special populations that morphed and grew into being the Director for Adult Learner Programs and Services, where I get to champion and advocate for other first-generation, adult, veterans, and parenting students pursuing their first-time degree at Penn State.

It is my dream job. I like to tell folks it’s like a cruise ship director. I get to provide advocacy, mentorship, and programming for over 1,800+ undergraduate students on their educational journey. Helping nontraditional-aged students build community and find emotional, academic, and financial support at a research institution. How fantastic a career is that?! When they need assistance or want to flush out ideas, find resources on campus or in the community, sharpen interpersonal skills, provide opportunities for civic engagement or figure out how to apply what they learn in the classroom, I get to help them do all of that.

OS: Since being here, what have been your biggest goals in helping college students and impacting the overall State College community?

LL: Getting college students to embrace their personal agency is a challenge because most people don’t lead their life, they accept it as is. They are content to roll along. Inspiring and motivating students to explore and gain experience that expands who they can become is the biggest goal en route to completing the degree. The second challenge is to get students to learn that every choice leads you toward or away from your personal goals. Your voice matters, your service and your intention matter, and it impacts the community you are a part of even if only for a few weeks or decades. 

OS: What have been some of your most rewarding projects or accomplishments during your time at Penn State?

LL: Implementing and collaborating with innovative and creative programs like the Tunnel of Oppression, which raises awareness about the subtle forms of oppression that show up in education, entertainment, religion, business, and in families. Simulations like It Happened One Night, an interactive alcohol education and prevention experience, and Re-Entry Simulation that provides insight into the challenges faced by those transitioning from incarceration back into society.

Collaborating and hosting Student Leadership and Diversity Conferences, instituting Financial Literacy Modules, working on retention initiatives with the various commissions, Military Appreciation efforts that have grown, founding the Adult Learner Opportunity Fund at University Park, Watch & Discuss opportunities based on social justice issues, creating opportunities for all students to learn about global cultures, hosting MLK Week of Commemoration, Juneteenth, Lunchbox Moments with the APIDA Community, and the Calling Men In Breakfast Series are among the most rewarding accomplishments at Penn State.

OS: With so many societal obstacles between race, sexuality, financial inequality, etc., what do you believe leads everyone to become a part of change?

LL: Sadly, not everyone opts in to be part of the change. They fail to realize that if they aren’t part of the solution then they are part of the problem. People seldom change unless they feel the pain or the passion.

In 2019, we brought Bryan Stevenson to Penn State, and little did I know that his remarks would change my life. I was inspired as he told us that if we want to change the world, we have to be proximate, close to the situation or circumstance. Next, we have to change the narrative, see what sides of the argument or story is missing, and we have to remain hopeful that we can effect change. Finally, the hard part was that we have to be willing to be both uncomfortable and inconvenienced for justice.

OS: How do you see yourself leading students to success?

LL: Students have to be willing to define success for themselves so that they can appreciate the many milestones of achievement. I pledge to continue motivating students to explore their values and beliefs as they discover their passion. Learn new skills, and model service and leadership, while I mentor and listen. Provide both challenge and support while expanding opportunities for every student so each choice leads to their success.

OS: When you were awarded the 2023 Humanitarian Award at this year’s MLK Banquet, what was your first reaction? What do you believe led you to receive it? 

LL: I think it is a steadfast commitment, faith that my contributions matter, and a willingness to serve with consistency over time that leads to this recognition. So, I am overjoyed about receiving the Humanitarian Service Award from the Forum on Black Affairs. Having my peers recognize my level of engagement, commitment to human welfare, social justice, philanthropy, and service for the past 16 years to the campus and State College Community is greatly reaffirming.

OS: We know you have a daughter! What do you do to inspire her and other young Black women for the future?

LL: I do have a fabulous daughter, and I have always included her in serving alongside of me whether it was at the annual AAUW Used Book Sale, serving meals with Out of the Cold, ministry at church, hosting MLK events, or attending protests. I encourage everyone to do what aligns with their values, be willing to grow and expand their beliefs, be kind to one another, break the silence, and advocate whenever possible as a way of living. Learn to take the limits off, and embrace the power of now along with a “both and” mindset.

OS: Finally, per Onward State tradition, if you were a dinosaur which one would you be and why?

LL: I would be an eagle since birds are considered a living group of dinosaurs and a common ancestor of all dinosaurs.

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About the Author

Larkin Richards

Larkin is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. The only words that leave her mouth are "yinz" and "dippy eggs." Luckily, her writing has much more substance than that. As a Steelers and Pirates fan, sports can become a hot debate. Share your thoughts on dogs (specifically Boston Terriers) with her at: [email protected]

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