As the Class of 2021 prepares for Commencement, May 6–8, The College Today will highlight how some of our graduating seniors spent their time at CofC, and what the future holds.

Leasette León wasn’t always the most outstanding student. In fact, when she graduated from high school, she didn’t have the grades she needed to get into the school of her choice: the College of Charleston. But, through determination and hard work, León changed all that – and now she’s graduating from the College with an Outstanding Student Award to prove how far she’s come.

“I think if a lot of people from my high school saw me now, they’d be like, Leasette?!?” she laughs. “I always wanted to come here, but when I couldn’t get in, I went to Lander University for the first year. I worked really hard and studied really hard so that I could transfer to CofC – and those study habits kind of carried over.”

And, with the highest cumulative GPA in the Program in Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS), it has certainly paid off for the LACS-Spanish double major.

“I really like learning, but studying doesn’t really come naturally to me – I do have to work hard,” says the first-generation Mexican-American from Columbia, South Carolina. “That’s why it meant so much to get the LACS Outstanding Student Award. I’m not used to getting that kind of recognition – and I never expected it. But it felt good to know someone else noticed how hard I’ve been working.”

And not just at school. With just a handful of exceptions, León and her twin brother – Eric León, an international business–Spanish double major who is also graduating this May – have traveled home every weekend during their tenure at the College to work at their family’s Mexican restaurants.

“I do all my work during the week – and Eric and I arrange our class schedules so that we can get out of town early on Friday,” says León, explaining that her father opened his first restaurant in Atlanta shortly after he and her mother came to the United States in the 1980s and now has around a dozen restaurants in Columbia – all operated by her family members. “I always knew that I’d be going back and forth – that was always the plan – so I didn’t really mind. But it is a little sad that I didn’t live the college life that is typical. But to be honest, that’s not what I came here for. I came here to get my degree.”

She knew she wanted to major in Spanish when she came to the College – but she also knew she wanted to have two majors.

“I didn’t know anything about LACS, but then Dr. [Nadia] Avendaño [LACS director] told me how LACS could pair with my Spanish major and how it studies the culture, the history and politics,” says León. “She said it could be good for what I was planning after college, too. She convinced me to be a part of LACS.”

Of course, the program’s study abroad requirement didn’t hurt either. And the semester León spent in Santiago, Chile, turned out to be a life-changing experience.

“My study abroad experience was a turning point for me,” says León, who lived with a host family for the fall 2019 semester – as did her brother. “I didn’t know much about Chile when I went – I didn’t know about the culture or that there was so much unrest.”

Indeed, the Chilean protests – known in Chile as the Estallido Social – began in October, forcing citizens to stay inside.

“It was pretty much like quarantine,” she says, adding that the protests didn’t put a damper on her experience. “It was the best experience I’ve ever had. It opened my eyes and made me realize that there’s so much I hadn’t been faced with before and that there’s so much more to life than what we see here.”

It also solidified her interest in pursuing a career in human rights and/or social/humanitarian work.

“I don’t really know what I want to do exactly, but I’ve been thinking about working for an NGO on the humanitarian side,” says León, who hopes to earn a master of social work from the University of Georgia. “I’m interested in working for a truth commission – organizations that examine past human rights violations during the military dictatorships in Latin America. That’s what really interests me, so I’d like to get into that field.”

And, as León has proven to herself, if she wants to do something, she can do it.

“What I’ve learned at the College of Charleston is, if you put your mind to something, it can happen,” she says, adding that her biggest takeaway from her CofC experience is “definitely character development, and I’m excited to see where I’ll take this after college. I don’t want to get all mushy or anything, but what I’ve learned here is that if you put in the work, and if you dedicate your time to something, you can go from not getting good grades to getting an Outstanding Student Award.”