Note to readers: Students Amanda Leckner and O'Brian Martin will speak with President Tim Sands as part of his State of the University address on Jan.18.

For junior Amanda Leckner, attending college was always an important milestone for her future. But it wasn’t until she came to Virginia Tech that she realized she had a passion for helping to create a more inclusive and accessible route to college for students of all backgrounds.

While in high school, Leckner became passionate about the Korean language, hoping to learn about a language and culture that is vastly different from her own upbringing. Her passion for the language made her realize the importance of global immersion, which set off an interest in studying international affairs. She was drawn to Virginia Tech’s international studies program, but, as a first-generation student, what ultimately steered her to Blacksburg was a scholarship.

Leckner, who is majoring in national security and foreign affairs, is a Presidential Scholarship Initiative recipient. The initiative provides full tuition, fees, room, and board annually to dozens of in-state students from low-income families. It also allows students to engage in academic enrichment activities, ensuring they are getting involved on campus. Lecker said that without the scholarship, she would not be able to attend Virginia Tech.

“When they provided the scholarship to me, I knew Virginia Tech was an institution that really cared about my success and who I was going to be in the future,” she said. “As a first-generation student — and especially a low-income student at the time — this was the best decision for me.”

Today, there is rarely any time when Leckner isn’t actively involved with her Hokie community. She is a Hokies First student leader and peer mentor, helping other first-generation students acclimate to the academic, cultural, and social aspects of campus. Leckners said the support and encouragement she felt from her mentor during her first year inspired to become a mentor herself during her sophomore year.

“I realized that I was able to provide the same safe space and support to my mentees as my mentor did for me,” she said. “It made me realize that uplifting other students is something that I am very passionate about.”

Leckner also works as a teaching assistant for the GenerationOne living-learning community for first-generation students and is the president of the Disability Alliance at Virginia Tech. She is also the vice president of mentorship in the Mozaiko living-learning community, a diverse community for both domestic and international students on campus.

These communities have strengthened her passion for helping people with similar backgrounds as herself. Leckner said her vision of Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), is rooted in mentorship.

As a person with cerebral palsy, Leckner said she often felt a need to hide her disability. In fact, she never thought she would join a disability alliance at any institution. Her mentor, however, pushed her to get out of her comfort zone and embrace this side of her story.

“Finding my greater identity within a huge community like Virginia Tech really pushed me out of my comfort zone to embrace that part of my identity as a disabled person,” Leckner said.

As a first-generation student, Leckner did not know what to expect going into college. She said the college experience is often romanticized and first-generation students have those expectations when they step onto campus for the first time.

“People tell you it's the greatest years of your life, but they also don't tell you about the hardships you may face,” Leckner said. “And for first-generation students, there are various other difficulties that we might face that people whose parents went to college may not understand.”

Virginia Tech and the First-Generation Student Support in the Dean of Students Office have helped support these students through this perplexing shift, Leckner said, as they go through something that no one else in their family has gone through — a difficult hurdle to overcome, she said.

Leckner experienced an internal conflict that is common among many first-generation students. She felt pressure and uncertainty when she was applying to college, knowing she was getting the education that her parents never received. However, Leckner tries to remind her mentees that they are reshaping their lives, and by doing that, they are supporting their family.

“Pushing people to know that their voices can be heard is something I try to emulate as a leader,” Leckner said. “I think that’s the most important thing about leadership to me. Your role isn’t to only be the person leading. As a leader, you should also be pushing other people to be leaders as well.”

Leckner is currently an undergraduate research assistant under Associate Professor Ashley Shew of the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, aiding in research that furthers disability and technology studies. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a law degree and work with human rights organizations.

“I want people to know that what I have done is possible for all students,” Leckner said.

Written by Cyna Mirzai, a senior and an intern for Virginia Tech Communications and Marketing