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Class of 2024: From language hurdles to leadership heights

Leslie De Jesus, a Union County Early College (UCEC) senior, is not just earning her high school diploma and associate's degree; she's leaving a legacy of compassion, leadership and advocacy. 

Growing up in a Spanish-speaking household, Leslie had to learn English when she started school. It was not easy, but she tackled the challenge. Through hard work and dedication, she became fluent in English and excelled in school. Her bilingualism became a point of pride and allowed her to connect with diverse communities.

"In elementary school, when I was still struggling, sometimes, out of nowhere, I'd speak in Spanish instead of English. I knew what I wanted to say, but it wouldn't come out in the right language. It got easier," said Leslie. "Knowing two languages became a real asset. When I volunteered at Common Heart, I used my bilingual skills often. I helped translate for Spanish-speaking families and made sure everyone felt welcome. I also made unforgettable bonds and friendships."

During elementary and middle school, Leslie preferred to stay in the background rather than speak up. However, as she got more involved in school activities, something transformed in her: Leslie found her voice. Volunteering in her community and joining clubs at UCEC gave her the courage to speak up. At first, she struggled, but with practice, it became natural. 

"I never thought I'd be able to speak in public, but I wanted to find my purpose. I knew I couldn't sit and hide and do that. My first year at UCEC, I decided to go for it," she said. "I knew if I wanted to be someone, I had to step out and take charge."

Leslie's commitment to service is evident in her extensive involvement in community organizations and initiatives. She has led or been a member of 13 clubs and volunteered at many local organizations, such as Common Heart, Heart for Monroe and Waxhaw Parks and Recreation, to name a few. From volunteering at local food pantries to serving as a mentor and Sunday School assistant at her church, Leslie has dedicated countless hours to making a positive impact on those around her. Time management is something she learned early on. 

"You have to set your priorities so that you can balance everything. I have had a lot of support from school staff, too, and not just in academics."

As a leader, Leslie has inspired her peers to join her in the pursuit of social good. Whether serving as the president of the Interact Club or leading the South Piedmont Community College (SPCC) National Society of Leadership and Success, she has consistently demonstrated her ability to empower others and build a culture of collaboration. 

"I became a member of the Interact Club in August 2020. With only two weeks of being a member, I ran for vice president. With all my energy and enthusiasm, I ran and proposed my ideas and perspective but did not win," she said. "However, every year since then, I have run and been selected for vice president, committee chair, and now I am president." 

Leslie's resilience shines through in her refusal to be deterred by setbacks. After failing a statistics course, Leslie saw an opportunity for growth. She approached the situation proactively, re-enrolled, sought a tutor and dedicated herself to mastering the material. Her hard work paid off, passing the course with a deeper understanding.

"No matter where life takes you, you are never truly failing. You are just learning to find different ways to overcome the obstacle or challenge," Leslie said, emphasizing the importance of pushing forward. She sees bumps in the road as opportunities for growth. A characteristic she learned from her mother. 

"My mother sets high expectations for me and my brothers. She is my role model," she said. "She is my biggest supporter. She is always there for me. She takes me everywhere. She stays up late with me when I need her to. I love my mom so much," she said.

Leslie has received numerous awards and honors that have been acknowledged on multiple occasions, from the Daryl Mitchell Award for Outstanding Student to the Good Citizen Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution. However, Leslie humbly views them as byproducts of her love of serving. 

When Leslie began her college search, she learned the importance of considering all options. After applying to 15 colleges and getting accepted to 12, Leslie became unexpectedly drawn to the University of North Carolina Greensboro, one she had not seriously considered before. As she visited the campus, she realized that it matched her values. It felt like a perfect fit for her. 

"It had a community feel with lots of diversity. What set them apart was that they held tours in Spanish for families who needed it. They removed a barrier. That impressed me. They also accepted all my college credits, which is a huge savings," she said. "Colleges and universities can sound great on paper or look wonderful in brochures, but you don't know if it'll be right until you visit. I highly recommend college visits. You might find a hidden gem."

Inspired by her Mexican heritage and driven by her passion for social justice, she plans to become an immigration lawyer. To prepare for this, she enrolled in criminal justice courses, joined SPCC's Law and Public Safety Club and dove into a service-learning project to better understand the immigrant experience.

"I have big dreams. I'm very ambitious. I want to be seen and heard, and I'm good at arguing a point, so the law came to mind. I also wanted to help others in my community, so immigration was the focus I wanted to explore," she said. "I had thought about becoming a dentist. I took a biology class, which wasn't my favorite, and decided it wasn't for me." 

After completing her undergraduate studies, she plans to attend law school.