Leilani Ly, of Honolulu, Hawai’i, is this year’s recipient of the Williamson Medal, the College’s most prestigious award for student achievement. It has been awarded annually since 1922. She graduated summa cum laude majoring in sociology, and received the medal at Franklin & Marshall’s 2021 Commencement, held May 15 in Lancaster’s Clipper Stadium.
Shortly after learning of her selection in early May, Ly answered several questions by email. Some of her answers have been edited for length or clarity.
Were you surprised when you learned you were receiving the Williamson Medal?
I was shocked. My jaw actually dropped—Dean (Margaret) Hazlett couldn’t see it because I was wearing a mask, but my mouth was wide open. I received an email a few weeks ago notifying me that I had been nominated, but I dismissed it because I knew so many other amazing seniors. It honestly never crossed my mind that I would get the award.
What brought you to Franklin & Marshall?
I learned about F&M through a pretty chance encounter. When I was a high school senior, a leadership program I was in hosted a one-time workshop with a private college counselor who coached us on applying to competitive schools that were either need-blind or committed to meeting 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need. As a low-income student, securing financial aid was my first priority in choosing a college. I followed this counselor’s advice and applied exclusively to schools on a list of need-blind or need-committed institutions she gave us. I honestly couldn’t have told you where Lancaster, Pa., was on a map at that time, but Franklin & Marshall was on the list, so I applied. The College offered me close to a full ride, which was hard to turn down. I definitely got a lot of confused looks from my friends in Hawai’i, but Lancaster truly does feel like my second home now.
What made you decide to major in sociology?
I took Sociology 100 in my first semester at F&M, and it completely blew my mind. I had never been taught to interrogate society through such an analytical and critical lens. When I did, it felt like so many dots were suddenly connecting, often in ways that felt deeply revelatory as a low-income woman of color and first-generation college student. I knew that I wanted to major in sociology right away because it gave me an analytical perspective of the world that carries significant and practical implications for dismantling systemic inequalities and injustices.
What was your most memorable class at Franklin & Marshall?
“Sociology of Sexuality” with Caroline Faulkner, associate professor of sociology. It was such a liberating course, because in engaging intellectually and thoughtfully with the content, we also were given a space to commiserate with each other about our own personal experiences of patriarchy, gendered racism, and the rape culture that is endemic on college campuses. Our class was just so full of smart, witty, feminist people who made the classroom feel as much of a community and a space for witness as it was a place for learning.
What was the most rewarding activity at the College?
Working as a tutor at the Writing Center has definitely been my most rewarding activity at F&M. I love the intimate process of working one-on-one with students and being able to witness those moments of newfound confidence when they feel like they’ve made a breakthrough with a piece. And I love that tutoring has allowed me to meet so many different students on campus who I otherwise would never have met. The Writing Center also has a very close-knit staff full of incredible people, and some of my fondest memories at F&M are of hanging out and talking for hours with other Center tutors after a shift.
What are your plans after you leave F&M?
I don’t really have concrete plans yet, but I’m applying to a mix of positions in both journalism and law. I’m potentially applying to journalism schools in a year or two, but I’m also considering going to law school in a few years. I want to try my hand at both fields before I make a commitment to graduate school. I’m not set on either path—part of me even hopes to pursue both in the long run. I think that’s OK, because I think it’s an absurd amount of pressure to try to figure out exactly where your career is headed at age 21. What I do know is that I want to use my research and writing skills to amplify the stories of misunderstood and underrepresented groups.
Your senior year has been unlike any other in Franklin & Marshall history. What have you learned about yourself during this pandemic year?
One major realization that I’m still actively working through is that I am often extremely hard of myself, to the point where I focus so much on what I haven’t done that I forget to celebrate what I have. This past year has been difficult for me in too many ways to name, as I’m sure it’s been for many of us. I have made many mistakes; I have fallen short; I have failed. But I refused to give up on my work. I have loved people as much as I have had the capacity to. I have continued to try my best in things I do. My best this year has been far from perfect, but I’m learning to accept that it’s been enough—and often it’s been better than I give myself credit for. I’m learning to celebrate the things I have accomplished—like earning the Williamson Medal—even in the face of the things I wish I had done better. Moreover, I have survived, and I am learning that is worth celebrating, too.
Williamson Medalist Leilani Ly ’21
Major: Sociology (graduating summa cum laude)
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawai’i
Honors and Awards: The William M. Kephart Prize in Sociology (2021); Phi Beta Kappa (2020-21); Black Pyramid Senior Honor Society (2020-21); selected as student preceptor in Connections 271, Islam in North America, taught by Professor SherAli Tareen.
Activities and Memberships: Writing Center Tutor (2018-21); Alice Drum Women’s Center board member (2018-21); Asian American Alliance (2019-20), which she served as vice president.
Academic Research and Study Abroad: Following extensive research, wrote paper titled “Extralegal Invisibility, Urban Subjectivity, and the Informal Economy in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp.” Studied criminology with a focus on prison reform during a semester at the University of Westminster in London.
Honors Thesis: “Cultural Capital Acquisition Among First-Generation College Students”
Reason for Topic: I’m a low-income, first-generation college student myself who went to underfunded public schools my whole life. I’ve experienced the struggles of navigating F&M and constantly having to work twice as hard to compensate. I wanted to study how students like me acquire the skills, behaviors and knowledge to successfully navigate the expectations of higher education, which is full of implicit rules. It’s like academic success and its myriad of opportunities are hidden behind a door for students who grew up in families with little exposure to higher education. Those students don’t have all the tools to open the door and sometimes aren’t even aware the door exists and is in their way. My interview-study research focuses on how to provide those skills and knowledge. If, as a society, we want to make higher education more accessible, and if schools like F&M want to see students succeed, then it’s critical to understand how we can equip first-generation students with the tools they need not just to survive, but to thrive, in college.
What She Enjoyed Most About Being an F&M Student: I enjoyed being intellectually challenged and meeting so many amazing people. Coming to F&M was the first time I was truly academically stimulated, and it has been a fun challenge to be intellectually creative in my thinking and writing here. And I’ve met so many astonishing professors who have stretched me and helped me grow into a better thinker, and so many incredible friends who have continuously inspired me, carried me through countless storms, and made my life more vibrant and fulfilling.
What She Would Tell Members of the Class of 2025: I would encourage them that you can make a place for yourself here. F&M might not be the kind of academic or social environment you’re used to; sometimes it might feel like you don’t belong or that it will be impossible for you to succeed. But you can make a place for yourself here. Trust that you are intelligent, determined and accomplished enough to do so, or to carve it out if that place isn’t already here, because you deserve that.