Grace Leekley’s resume reads like that of a much more seasoned student:

LGBT Resource Center volunteer. Vagina Monologues performer. Delta Delta Delta sorority sister. She’s lobbied in Sacramento on behalf of her university, and has fundraised for the Campus Assault Resource and Education (CARE) Center—all while maintaining a 3.76 GPA as a double major in sociology and political science. And that’s just within her first year as an anteater.

It sounds like a lot—and it is. But Leekley’s ambition and willingness to take on a plethora of activities, particularly those that serve her campus and her community, are precisely what earned her the Nicholas Aeberhard Award.

Open to freshmen from all schools on campus, the Aeberhard Award is granted to the one student who best exemplifies student leadership, personal integrity, a dedication to academics, and involvement in campus and civic activities. Each school is able to nominate one student, with the winner being selected from that pool. For Mark Petracca, associate dean in the School of Social Sciences, the decision to nominate Leekley just made sense.

“Leekley hit the ground running as a first year student at UCI,” he says. “Her level of involvement on the campus during her first year was as impressive as it was rare for most students. I am particularly impressed with the community service oriented nature of her involvements.”

And while her extracurricular involvements are inspiring to outsiders, for Leekley—who grew up next door to an impoverished community near San Francisco—giving back is just part of her DNA.

“When I was growing up, my parents would take me to volunteer to feed the homeless with our church every Thanksgiving,” she explains. “So from that young age, because of how my parents raised me and what I saw, I grew up with this really big passion for helping people.”

As a high school student she continued her philanthropy, volunteer teaching at a dance studio. And it was during her senior year, in an AP government class, that she discovered the path that would allow her to turn her passion for helping people into her career.

“My senior year I took AP government and that’s where I first heard the term lobbyist,” she says. “And it all kind of fell into place. I don’t personally want to go into politics or congress—it just seems like a mess to me—but I feel like lobbying is a good way to get around that whole political storm while still making a difference.”

Leekley has only been at UCI for one year, but she has already dipped her toe in the lobbying pool thanks to the LobbyCore course she took during the winter quarter. After completing the class, she was selected by ASUCI to travel to Sacramento as part of a small student group where she was able to lobby state legislators on four different bills relevant to UC students.

“The lobby appointment was kind of amazing,” she says. “I really felt like the staffer was listening and like I was able to make some change that would benefit the UC system. I think it reflected what it would feel like if I was to be a real lobbyist, so it really reinforced what I want to do.”

She says that the experience was one of the best of her life, and really kicked up her excitement to focus more on her major courses this year now that her general education requirements are out of the way.

She is also thrilled to begin her role as one of the newest peer educator interns at UCI’s CARE Center. After volunteering with the center last year and performing in the Vagina Monologues, providing support to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking has become one of Leekley’s primary concerns.

In her new role, she will meet with various campus organizations, from Greek life to athletics, to give presentations about sexual violence in hopes of raising awareness and offering tools for prevention. She plans to be a part of the CARE family throughout her time at UCI, and would one day like to lobby for improved legislation surrounding such issues.

“Sexual assault, sexual violence, stalking—they’re kind of getting better in terms of legislation but it’s not where it should be,” she says. “So that’s something that’s a top priority to me. It’s definitely about making people aware and hoping that they want to do everything in their power to make a change.”

With so much on her plate, it would be easy for her to burn out. And while she thrives off some stress, she has found a way to manage her activities so that she’s not taking on too much. For example, thanks to high school AP courses, she has the option to finish her bachelor’s degree in only three years. But as it stands now, she plans to take the standard four years in order to really savor her college experience.

“As much as I would love to get out there and make a change as fast as possible, I also really value this once-in-a-lifetime experience of being in college,” Leekley says. “I feel like I can start putting my foot in the door of my career without leaving UCI prematurely.”

And for that, UCI can be grateful. After all, if she’s achieved this much in just one year, imagine what she’ll get done by 2019.

Leekley is the ninth Aeberhard recipient from the School of Social Sciences in the past 10 years, and the 16th out of 22 total recipients.


—Bria Balliet, UCI School of Socia


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