Building Community with Art and Design
While scholarships make her RISD education possible, Leslie Ponce-Diaz assists other students in accessing needed resources.
Born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas, Leslie Ponce-Diaz BArch 23 uses art and design to better people’s lives. Her parents were born in the Mexican city of Cuauhtémoc and immigrated to the United States as teenagers. Her father, who worked in roofing and construction, sparked her interest in architecture. “Seeing him and other family members on roofs for 20-plus years has influenced my structural and architectural thinking,” she says.
Being a first-generation student at RISD and knowing all that her family sacrificed for her future made a profound impact on her. “I created First-Gen Chisme to provide students from marginalized backgrounds informational resources to prepare them for success in postsecondary education. I understand how difficult college is for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), first-generation and low-income students,” she says. “There was so much I wanted to talk about as a marginalized student on campus, and I wanted to connect with others who could relate. What began as a form of expression has become a venture that I hope to transform into a nonprofit supporting students through education and creative arts.”
Thanks to a Maharam STEAM Fellowship, Ponce-Diaz worked with Enough is Enough, an initiative in a Kansas City school district that raises awareness about gun violence. This summer, Enough is Enough and First-Gen Chisme collaborated to help local students access resources for postsecondary education. “This support empowered me to pursue community building and gain experience in nonprofit organizations,” she says. It was a busy summer as she also participated in Brown University’s B-Lab—an intensive eight-week accelerator program that supports student entrepreneurs developing high-impact ventures—to create a First-Gen Chisme tech app.
Support from the Schiller Family Scholarship, the Johnson & Johnson Women in STEM2D Scholarship and the Materials Fund has been critical to her success. “RISD’s competitive financial award package was a big factor in choosing to study here, to flourish in this creative environment and to follow my passions,” she says. Additionally, her work-study positions have included serving as a Residential Life Advocate for Inclusion in Residence, a Spalter Teaching Fellow at the RISD Museum and a teaching assistant in Architecture, Experimental and Foundation Studies and Project Open Door.
She considers herself a multimedia artist, so in addition to majoring in Architecture, she also is concentrating in Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies and Theory and History of Art and Design. “My goals include codesigning with communities and addressing the sustainability needs of under resourced communities,” she says. “After RISD, I hope to earn my architectural license and pursue a master’s degree in Urban Design and Latinx Studies.”