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Friday, March 24, 2023

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SDSU grad Claudia Mowery (left) was finally able to meet and personally thank William E. Leonhard Jr. for his support during the Evening of Philanthropy event in January. SDSU grad Claudia Mowery (left) was finally able to meet and personally thank William E. Leonhard Jr. for his support during the Evening of Philanthropy event in January.

SDSU Alumnus' Scholarship Reflects His Personal Responsibility to Help Aztecs Community

William E. Leonhard Jr.'s generosity has supported over 100 graduate and undergraduate engineering students for over two decades.
By Mario Sevilla

Claudia Mowery juggled jobs to self-finance her education. She trekked the grueling commute from San Diego’s North County to San Diego State University, then back home. 

“It wasn’t easy,” Mowery said. 

With self-doubt and the threat of debt mounting over her, she recalled feeling emotionally overwhelmed after learning she was among the first class of recipients to be awarded the William E. Leonhard Jr. Scholarship. 

“It filled me with a feeling of gratitude first and foremost,” said Mowery. “After that, I remember getting a bit of a boost to my self-esteem and a sense that I was worthy of being there, pursuing this mechanical engineering degree.”

Leonhard’s generous gift allowed Claudia to focus on her studies, resulting in her becoming SDSU’s 2001 valedictorian.

In 1959, Leonhard came to SDSU from Los Angeles stubbornly determined to fulfill his dream of becoming an engineer — and only an engineer.

“It was either engineer or drown,” said Leonhard. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

But what Leonhard hadn’t calculated into his engineering pursuits were the many non-academic activities on campus that would also shape his future and personal values. He remembered his first time on campus, the freshman college dorm council needed students to assist in overseeing policy and programs. Despite his inexperience, he volunteered anyway because they needed help. 

“It was so much different from the equation world I was in,” Leonhard said. 

“I knew right then and there … I wanted to develop an engineering background that I could use in a management situation,” he said. Joining the council marked the first time in Leonhard’s life he served in any leadership capacity.

His time at SDSU — highlighted by watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Open Air Theater in 1964 — sent Leonhard on a new career trajectory that blended engineering with his motivation to help others.

“That was something that has stayed with me my entire life,” he said.

After SDSU, Leonhard joined the U.S. Air Force as an engineer and second lieutenant. He retired 25 years later as a colonel. He then moved on to the private sector where he once served as senior program manager for The Parsons Corporation and managed the design of themed rides for Disney Parks. 

Leonhard said while his SDSU education paved a path to a long career as an engineer, he credits his personal experience on campus for instilling the desire to help aspiring Aztecs, like Mowery.

Mowery is the first person in her family to receive a formal technical degree and is now a vice president at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego.

“I was very fortunate to have professors and other guiding lights along the way cheering me on to continue down this path,” said Mowery. “Mr. Leonhard was certainly one of those guiding lights.”

“Even though he wasn’t there physically, he ‘cheered me on’ via his scholarship,” she said.

Nearly two decades later, Mowery was finally able to thank Leonhard during SDSU’s Evening of Philanthropy event in January. 

“Meeting Mr. Leonhard was a true delight,” she said. “It certainly closed the loop for me…and, the bonus was to be able to get to know more about him and his interesting career.”

Since Mowery received the award over 20 years ago, the William E. Leonhard Jr. Scholarship has supported over 100 graduate and undergraduate engineering students.

“It was never an option for me,” Leonhard said about his philanthropy and desire to help students through his scholarship. He recognizes how expensive tuition is today and he hopes his gift can help provide students some financial relief or reduce college debt. 

“Hopefully you get to the point where you have more donors than you have recipients,” he said.

Mowery is now one of those donors.

“I love what I do,” Mowery said in a message to Leonhard. “I even gave my first contribution to San Diego State this year, helping other students, much like you helped me.”