Valedictorian Leiana Petlewski '21: 'We Have the Ability to Create Change in the Name of Hope'

Leiana Petlewski '21Leiana Petlewski ’21 got to do a little of everything at Pacific University.

Petlewski was a dancer and choreographer, an actor and theatre tech, a musician. They studied abroad, completed internships locally and internationally, and served as an ambassador to other students.

“I was always told I would have to choose in college, and that’s the reason I love Pacific,” they said in a 2019 video. “You get to do so many different things, and the professors are supportive of that instead of trying to encourage you to choose one thing.”

A dance and applied theatre double major, Petlewski was selected as Pacific’s undergraduate valedictorian for May 2021 Commencement. They also were named the university’s Outstanding Senior in Applied Theatre (along with fellow graduate Julia Peterson ’21), Outstanding Senior in Dance, and Outstanding Senior in the Arts.

Originally from Vasalia, Calif., Petlewski came to Pacific supported by a talent scholarship for music — they played cello in the Pacific Philharmonic Orchestra. They also earned talent scholarships for dance and theatre, as well as the Harvey W. Scott and Judith Scott Walter Scholarship, Elliott Endowed Scholarship, and Vandervelden Endowed Scholarship.

Petlewski performed and choreographed with the Pacific Dance Ensemble, acted and managed tech for Theatre Department shows, including Orlando, in which they were the lead, and worked in Undergraduate Admissions as a student representative and tour guide and in Residence Life as a resident assistant and community assistant.

They studied abroad at York St. John University in England, where they interned with Converge, an arts program serving the mental health community. They helped start the first U.S. branch of the program by co-facilitating a summer theatre course at PCC Rock Creek, and they also completed an applied theatre and social work internship at Pacific. 

Like all of their graduating class, Petlewski’s Pacific experience was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic along with the social and political unrest of the time.

“The truth of it is that this year has been hard, and exhausting, and disappointing in a lot of ways,” Petlewski said in their valedictory remarks in the May 2021 virtual undergraduate commencement ceremony. “It doesn’t seem fair, and it’s not. But even through all of this, we are here today celebrating something that is a huge accomplishment all on its own, let alone right now.

“Just by being here, by continuing to create and learn and most of all support each other in that process, we are showing the world how strong and resilient and determined we are to make this our time and to share our stories.”

Storytelling, Petlewski said, is at the core of what they have learned at Pacific.

“Our stories make us who we are, and the most powerful thing we can do is make sure our stories get told. … Our stories are painted with all colors of the rainbow, all shades of black and brown, and include people of all abilities. They are texturized by happiness, pain, elation, grief, surprise, success, and fierce determination. … By making space for all stories to be told and truly listening, we can work together to turn thoughts into action and action into change, the kind of change that the world demands right now.”

Following graduation, Petlewski plans to move closer to Portland and pursue a career in theatre and dance — to keep creating, keep telling stories, and keep working for change.

“Harvey Milk said, ‘I know that you cannot live on hope alone but without it, life is not worth living.’ I think he was right. As integral as hope is to all aspects of life, hope is not enough to make the change this world so desperately needs and the change we so intensely deserve. But that hope, coupled with our fierce determination and resilience, will be unstoppable.

“I truly believe that we have the ability to create change in the name of hope,” Petlewski told their fellow graduates. “And if we can do that, well then, our stories are just beginning.”

Read more about Pacific's outstanding May 2021 graduates all month at

Saturday, May 15, 2021