By Katie Malatino

Ahlyia Leclerc will graduate with a bachelor’s in environmental science. Her path to this achievement was a bumpy one, but along the way, she found the strength to believe in herself.

“My advice to all incoming students is to put your mental and physical health above all else,” said Leclerc. “Although it may feel shameful and embarrassing at first, talk to your TAs, professors, and peers. There is absolutely no shame in advocating for yourself. And finally, grades do not define you. Take in the big AND small victories. Whether you are struggling or not, you were admitted for a reason and deserve to be here. Regardless of your individual academic progress, you are a worthwhile student and belong in the RPI community.”

Leclerc learned these wise lessons the hard way. First, she was a senior in high school when the pandemic hit and her school stopped teaching new material, so Leclerc anticipated being behind her peers at Rensselaer. She participated in the Bridge Scholars Program, which provides rigorous instruction in calculus and physics to incoming students, to catch up. Even then, she struggled. “I barely scraped by my first two years,” she said. “My main coping mechanism was reminding myself that grades don’t define who I am, and just focus on doing the best that I could.”

On top of that, she developed chronic hand and wrist issues during her sophomore year that made writing and typing painful and difficult. She also lost a close relative to brain cancer and experienced another loss this semester.

Through all of this, Leclerc persevered, and with great success. She was accepted into the Accelerated B.S./Ph.D. program, and thanks to that, she was afforded exceptional research opportunities. “I have been doing undergraduate research with Dr. Sasha Wagner and Dr. Karyn Rogers for over two years and have been able to work part- and full-time as a research assistant,” she said. “This has allowed me opportunities to work very closely with the current Ph.D. students, train incoming undergrads and graduate students alike, and even assist with field sampling during Tropical Storm Nicole. In the Spring 2023 semester, I presented in the Undergraduate Research Symposium and earned Best Oral Presentation in the Engineering and Physical Sciences category! Also, sometime after I graduate, I will be on at least two peer-reviewed publications as a co-author, and I will be first author on another.”

Extracurricular activities have also been important to Leclerc while at Rensselaer. She participated in the Rensselaer Astrophysical Society, the Student Sustainability Task Force, and the earth sciences honor society Sigma Gamma Epsilon. “I was part of a team representing RPI for a sustainability competition called the Green Bowl, and against 14 colleges nationwide, our team earned second place. As a result, we were kindly invited to attend a hockey game with President Schmidt and his wife, Lyn, and their dogs!”

Looking back, her Arch semester away was the most memorable. “Because of the B.S./Ph.D. program, I was given an exception to stay on campus and conduct full-time research with Dr. Sasha Wagner for four months. In this time, I got my first apartment, befriended my peers, engaged in wonderful research opportunities, and truly felt a sense of community. Above all else, the friendships made the greatest impact on me!”

After all of her hard work, Leclerc intends to take a gap year to gain industry experience before pursuing her doctoral degree. Undoubtedly, she will be ready no matter what hurdles she faces!