The life of artist, PhD candidate and mother of four Leslie Sotomayor is hectic.

“I need to fit everything I need to do in my day between 8:30 am and 3 pm,” she says. Because at 3 pm, she picks her kids up from school and daycare and then heads home to Boalsburg so the family can catch up, eat together, and relax. “I am on the go from the moment I wake up,” she says, making it important to have evenings free to decompress with kids and friends.

Ten years ago, Sotomayor was a 29 year-old stay-at-home mom homeschooling her kids. She loved doing that, but wanted something else for herself. She looked into the Arts Program at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and has not looked back since.

Sotomayor started pursuing bachelor’s degrees in Art Education, Women’s Studies, and African Studies. Her fellow students were younger and many had formal art backgrounds, which left her questioning her abilities at times. A mentor helped her understand that she was meant to be an artist.

During her final undergraduate year, she received a $5,000 scholarship from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) State College Branch.

“The AAUW award is what enabled me to finish my triple-major bachelor’s degree. I literally had nothing – had come through a divorce, was finishing up [my bachelor’s degrees] and looking on to grad school,” Sotomayor remembers. “I am grateful for the opportunities that the award gave me to finish my degrees and pursue graduate school with less debt than I would have had otherwise.”

Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be where I’m at in my life today.

The purpose of AAUW is to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. The State College Branch celebrated 100 years of doing just that in 2016.

After finishing her undergraduate degrees, Sotomayor completed her Master’s degree at PSU and is currently pursuing a dual-doctorate program in Art Education and Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies. As she continues her formal education, she has found “sanctuary” in her on-campus art studio.

Sotomayor’s studies and research have taken her to Cuba, where she has traced her maternal family’s footsteps. Her children (Christina, 19, Sterling, 15, Miles, 12, and Sophia, 1) were even able to accompany her once, meeting their extended family members.

Her children are very supportive of her and sometimes help her set up for art shows. She talks to her kids about pursuing their dreams. She thinks it is very important that they see the pride and hard work that fuel her passion.

They are used to seeing her as a student – that is what she has been for almost a decade of their young lives. She jokes that once she is done with school and has a career in her field it will be an adjustment for them.

Sotomayor hopes to eventually work at a research institution where she can teach, continue to make art, and keep doing research in Cuba. She returned to Havana in the summer of 2017 to host a solo art exhibit.

In 2004, AAUW created an endowment fund, the AAUW State College Branch Scholarship Fund, at Centre Foundation. Since then, the fund has issued $174,000 in scholarships to 35 women. The fund will ensure that the organization will be able to distribute scholarships to students like Sotomayor for the next 100 years and beyond.