Leslie Kirk: Finding a Community

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Leslie Kirk, '18 Sustainable Urban Development, wants to give voice to people by empowering them to make sense of their surroundings.

“I didn’t graduate from a traditional high school. I have holes in my education,” said Leslie Kirk, UW Tacoma’s 2018 President’s Medalist, who is getting her BA in sustainable urban development, along with a certificate in geospatial information systems. The President’s Medal is given each year to the graduate with the most outstanding academic record.

Kirk is a transfer student, coming to UW Tacoma in 2016 from Tacoma Community College. She has been on the Dean’s List every quarter at UW Tacoma, and received the Director’s Award for Academic Excellence in Urban Studies in 2017.

“I remember sitting in English 101 [at TCC], being, like, ‘How am I going to write a paper? All these people know what these things mean—APA, MLA.’ I got my first paper back, and I remember Dr. Fox sitting me down at TCC and being like, ‘Hey, so I wrote all over your paper. Don’t get scared. This is amazing, and I’m going to push you. You got an ‘A’ on your rough draft, but I want to see what you can do.’ “

Kirk grew up playing music, which she says was how she dealt with being a teenager. “Which is not easy, no matter who you are. I wanted to give people a stage, give them a voice. And that still carries into my work today. Whether it be a microphone or a GIS system.”

GIS stands for geographic information system. It’s a “system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present spatial or geographic data,” according to Wikipedia. “In GIS,” said Dr. Matthew Kelley, Associate Professor in UW Tacoma’s Urban Studies Program, “we teach people how to make maps, do spatial analysis, understand why things are, where they are, and how we might plan better for the future.”

In addition to her work on the GIS certificate, Kirk has been working as a research assistant on Kelley’s Action Mapping Project (AMP). AMP is a collaboration with Tacoma Public Schools, Metro Parks, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and Safe Streets. “This project is very much about letting youth speak for themselves,” said Kelley. “How do we get kids invested in the process of making their neighborhoods better and more livable, so that we’re not making decisions for them, but we’re making decisions with them?”

Kirk serves the project as “community mapping mentor.” She guides teams of youth in public schools in Tacoma. The teams produce an annual set of maps that document how youth interact with their neighborhoods, recording where they spend time, where they avoid, and how they navigate to school or home. The maps are expected to guide public agencies on improving the livability of the neighborhoods.

While doing all that, Kirk has served as the president of the UW Tacoma GIS Society, and community outreach coordinator with Civitas, an Urban Studies student organization.

Obviously, her accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. Kelley said that Kirk is “among the top 1% of all students I have worked with at UW Tacoma in the past ten years at either the undergraduate or graduate level.” And there’s that President's Medal.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Kirk. “But I think I found the right community. I found the right family, be that professors or peers. It’s what I love about the Urban Studies program. We’re such a tight-knit community. I know their story, they know mine. We don’t let people slip through the cracks.”

Return to 2018 Commencement: 1,850 Change Makers

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Written by: 
John Burkhardt / June 8, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu