Leila Duka stands next to a window in the Student Community Center.

Schuylkill Speaks: A Conversation with Leila Duka

Leila Duka, a senior earning bachelor's degrees in Administration of Justice and Psychology with a minor in Sociology, will cross the stage at Penn State Schuylkill's commencement ceremony on May 4 and walk straight into her new role as a graduate student at the top criminal justice grad school in the nation.
By: Samantha L. Bower

Leila Duka has made her impact on Penn State Schuylkill. She’s a born leader, leaving the Schuylkill campus as president of the Student Government Association and vice president of Paw Pride, Schuylkill’s LGBTQ advocacy group. She's a member of the Honors Program, too. Recently, she won the Chancellor’s Award for Student Leadership and was inducted into Gamma Beta Phi, a national honors and service society.

With all of her extracurricular activities, it’s hard to believe that Leila had time to earn not just one bachelor’s degree, but two – with a minor. In May, Leila will accept her degrees in Psychology and Administration of Justice with a minor in Sociology. And she won’t stop here – this summer, Leila will begin her master’s degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland, the nation's top graduate school in the field of criminal justice.

Despite her busy schedule, Leila took a few minutes to chat about her journey, her future, and her advice for Penn Staters still working on their undergraduate degrees.

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY.

What was your early school career like? Did you always enjoy school or did you need to find something that sparked your passion so you actually enjoyed learning?

At first, I did not like school but as I got older I began to understand the value of education. My parents are immigrants who did not finish high school, and have always expressed that I had to go to college and earn every degree possible. So, in order to make them both proud and make their sacrifices worthwhile I took school very seriously. I also just enjoy being knowledgeable about various topics and being educated. It helps in all walks of life, so although my reasons are altruistic, they are also intrinsic.

Did you always want to follow a career in Administration of Justice and Psychology, or did you entertain other career paths, too?

When I was younger, I saw the movie Agent Cody Banks and from that moment on I knew I wanted to be a secret agent. My family was on the fence and thought that I was just a little kid who saw a movie and wanted to emulate that. That was not the case; I truly wanted to be a secret agent, but in the FBI. But that didn’t sit right with my family because they said I would not be swimming in money, which they thought I could because of how intelligent I am. So I looked into being a lawyer and a doctor and I was going to pursue that in college. But when the time came to actually apply to college I looked at the majors and questioned my actual passions and I quickly realized I did not want to be a doctor or a lawyer –  I wanted to be the secret agent I thought I’d always become. 

What made you want to earn a degree in Administration of Justice?

The movie really influenced my choice, but more importantly I had seen injustices before my eyes and nothing being done, so I thought that maybe I could make that difference in the criminal justice field. I truly do not know where I will end up in the field but I want to spark change within the system to help fine tune it and make it fair for everyone in the country.  I originally had a double minor in psychology and sociology but I added psychology as my second major my sophomore year. I decided that this made me more marketable to the workforce and I find the material so fascinating and useful in the criminal justice field.  As for sociology, it makes so much sense with the other two degrees. I truly created a perfect little trio of fields to study.

Why did you choose Penn State Schuylkill to earn your degrees?

If I am being completely honest, I received an invitation in the mail to go to a seminar in Long Island that was going to talk about Penn State. Our current Director of Enrollment Management, David Chavira, was there and he really sold me. He stressed that the Administration of Justice degree  at Penn State Schuylkill was one of the best at the University and that the faculty within that field were some of the best, too. He was a former student so I really took his word for it, which led me on the path to adding another major and a minor because of the phenomenal faculty at Schuylkill.

What people, places, and things at Schuylkill have made earning your degrees an awesome experience?

Ron Kelly, Dr. Hakan Can, and Dr. Juyoung Song have truly made earning my Administration of Justice degree an amazing experience. Visiting and touring prisons was an incredible experience, and talking to professionals in the criminal justice field was truly eye-opening and enriching. As for Psychology, Dr. Cory Scherer and Dr. Barb Wade taught the most interesting classes and made the experience worthwhile. Dr. Stephen Couch made the sociology minor a pleasure to earn.

Have you had a favorite class, or is there a specific focus within your studies you really enjoyed?

My favorite Administration of Justice class was Ron Kelly's class on sexual violence – it truly got down to the nitty gritty of what justice professionals deal with. It was very eye opening. Kelly made the class really exciting and I chose to make it an Honors Option course and explore zoophilia. My favorite Psychology class is a tie between the Psychology of Evil class where we learned about different serial killers, and Personality Theory class, where we learned about what makes people different from one another in terms of their personalities. My favorite sociology class was one where we learned all about Centralia and the sociological consequences of it. We even went to visit Centralia as a class trip.

When you applied to the University of Maryland, did you know that they were the top Criminal Justice graduate school in the nation, or was that a happy accident?

I did know. Dr. Scherer and I were discussing grad schools, and he found a list of the top schools in the country and sent it to me. The University of Maryland was at the top.

Were you nervous about applying?

To say that I was nervous would have been an understatement. I applied to the top three schools in the country as well as the ninth, but I was only accepted by the #1 program. It was all worthwhile.

Did anyone help you with your grad school application?

Dr. Scherer was instrumental in the graduate school application process. He looked over my personal statement, CV, and writing samples. I received recommendation letters from Dr. Scherer, Dr. Can, Dr. Song, and Dr. Couch. I have them to thank for aiding me in this stressful process.

What do you hope to do with your master’s degree?

My end goal is to work for the FBI, but I am very open to different paths that may arise with this new degree.

How did your family react when you told them you got in to the #1 Criminal Justice grad school in the country?

They were thrilled! It was a bittersweet moment nonetheless because I would be four and a half hours away from them for the majority of the year instead of the three hours I am at Schuylkill. They are still very supportive and want to do everything in their power to make my dreams come true.

Will you pursue any entry-level jobs while you earn your master’s degree, or is the master’s your only concern right now?

I was thinking about applying to the Montgomery County Prison in Maryland before the program begins. I would like to gain hands-on experience while earning my master's, but I don't want to spread myself too thin. I usually like to plan these things out, but it's a big question mark right now.

Now that you’re days away from becoming a college graduate, what advice do you have for students still earning their degrees or thinking about college?

I’ve had a lot of conversations with my dad about this being too hard and how I’m not sure if I can keep going. And he always says “It’s all going to pay off in the end.” I use that to push through. Everything you’re working toward will pay off in the end.