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Opportunity to Explore

Elena Williamson is the first recipient of the Rebecca Leonard Scholarship Endowment in Exploratory Studies. The new scholarship is named after Rebecca Leonard, an associate professor emerita and a founder of the Exploratory Studies Program.

Elena Williamson in front of a grassy background on the Court of North Carolina
Elena Williamson, the first recipient of the Rebecca Leonard Scholarship Endowment in Exploratory Studies

Rebecca Leonard knew when she started college that her family didn’t have the financial means to support her. She had even resigned herself to the fact that she would probably have to work side jobs throughout the school year to afford tuition, fees and housing costs. Fortunately, she received a scholarship that alleviated much of the financial burden.

“When I started my undergraduate studies I had intended to be a teacher, so I got a full, four-year scholarship from the local Teachers Association,” Leonard said. “My family didn’t have the funds to support me, and I did have to work in the summers to help pay for my housing, but because the tuition and fees were covered for all four years it made a huge difference.”

Leonard, an associate professor emerita in the NC State College of Humanities and Social Sciences, is now providing a similar gift of opportunity to NC State students in a program she loves and helped design. The new, need-based Rebecca Leonard Scholarship Endowment in Exploratory Studies will be awarded annually to NC State’s Exploratory Studies Program students who demonstrate community leadership and a strong, consistent commitment to community service, particularly working with historically under-served or marginalized populations.

“After taking care of myself as I age, I wanted to give back to the university that I love and its students,” she said. “My hope for this scholarship fund is that it can grow and help many students reach their potential.”

In her career of 30-plus years at NC State, Leonard helped countless students realize their potential and find the career field that was right for them. In the early 1990s, after reviewing retention data, Chancellor Larry Monteith and Provost Nash Winstead asked Leonard to examine the research on student success and design a program for first-year students to help them achieve success at NC State. 

What Leonard discovered was that many first-year, first-generation college students were not succeeding at NC State because they lacked mentors who could help them navigate their classes and college life. So, she helped create the First-Year Experience Program, which later became First-Year College and is now the Exploratory Studies Program in University College.

“This new program helped students transition into college with peer and faculty support, and it also helped them learn about the variety of majors on campus so that they could make a more informed decision about which field to go into,” she said. “Over the years, the initial pilot program has been improved and expanded, but it still has the same purpose and students are becoming more successful because they have the support and information they need coming into this big, confusing place.”

Meet the First Recipient

The first recipient of the Rebecca Leonard Scholarship Endowment in Exploratory Studies was awarded this fall to Elena Williamson, a first-year student from Greenville, N.C. She is also a member of the University Scholars Program and a University Honors and Scholars Village resident.  

“I love the people here,” Williamson said. “Everyone is very friendly and nice, and I love being a part of the Honors and Scholars Village because it seems like there’s always something to do.”

In the Exploratory Studies Program, Williamson is exploring a potential major in international studies and has decided to minor in Spanish.

“I chose to be in the Exploratory Studies Program because I don’t know what I want to do, and it was a big factor in choosing NC State,” Williamson said. “This scholarship is really important to me because I come from a single-parent household, so any kind of help is great.”

For more information about the Exploratory Studies Program, please visit their website.