Introducing Whittier’s 2023 student commencement speaker

April 26, 2023

Leilanie McGregorLeilanie McGregor '23, a social work major who embodies the transformational power of Whittier, won a competition to become the school’s 2023 Student Commencement Speaker this May. 

“I was surprised and humbled,” McGregor said of the honor. “The other applicants seemed like amazing people who also have a lot to share.”

McGregor’s journey to a Whittier degree began in 2009. A teenage mother dealing with bouts of homelessness and domestic violence, without having completed her high school education, she enrolled at Los Angeles Southwest College. Continued life challenges for McGregor and her two children led her to suspend her degree pursuit.

“I had to grow up faster than other people my age,” McGregor said. “I’ve never had anything: high school graduation, prom.”

In 2019, now a mother of four in her late twenties, she transferred to Whittier from El Camino Community College and covered tuition with the help of low-income Pell and Cal Grants and a MacKenzie Scott–funded internship.

McGregor’s degree progress accelerated in November 2022 when she moved her family from Crenshaw — hours away via public transit — to a residence in Whittier. That proximity to campus, as well as her understanding professors, put McGregor on track to join the Class of 2023.

“I was told my whole life I wouldn’t amount to anything because I was a teenage mother. Many people have tried to make me feel ashamed,” McGregor said. “But I'm not. It was how my life was to happen. Boom! In your face: I got a bachelor’s degree.”

After taking a gap year, McGregor plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work and, ultimately, work on fostering student success on a college campus, perhaps even at her soon-to-be alma mater. While her early experiences at Whittier were entirely online due to the pandemic, this May, she will preside over a pair of large in-person celebrations to cap her academic career there, starting with her induction into the Black Alumni Association.

“My experience has a lot of solutions that can help Whittier get back to how it used to be before Covid,” McGregor said. “I hope I can find somewhere to fit in on campus, where students can feel that.”

McGregor’s commencement speech will highlight her identity as a first-generation college attendee, a community college transfer, a single mother of four, and a multi-ethnic individual (Afro-Latino, AAPI, Mayan, Aztec).

“I learned to accept who I am, and to use my experiences as strengths,” McGregor said. “I have embraced not having to pick which identity group I fit into. This all happened through Whitter to make me the person I am.”