It’s hard to miss Joey Leszczynski ’23 around campus. One of the most fashion-forward members of the Bryant community, he can often be found in the Bryant Rotunda — the figurative center of the university — holding court and showing off his signature style with confidence. Or you might catch his work in the student magazine he founded or the award-winning research he’s conducted. This year, he found a new way to bring people together and share the spotlight through the first Thrive Gala, a celebration of high fashion and individuality.
Some of that high profile is the product of a curious mind and a flair for showmanship. But for Leszczynski, a proud gay man, it’s also a conscious choice to never compromise who he is for anyone. “This is a straight world — that’s cut and dry,” he says. “You can choose to be silent, but if you're silent, the world is going to walk all over you.”
“Confidence and authenticity,” says Leszczynski, are both his watchwords and his personal brand and he’s made it his mission to use those traits to prepare for a future helping others, leave his mark on campus, and elevate the students around him. “I want people to know me as somebody who isn’t afraid to lead with my heart,” says Leszczynski, who’s continuing his studies at Brown University after Commencement. “I want them, whether or not they like my fashion sense or agree with my stances or who I am, to know that I am authentically me.”
A path of his own
Much of his strength, says Leszczynski, comes from his family, who has always told him that he was capable of great things and instilled in him the drive and courage to work hard to achieve them. It was the confidence they inspired in him that led him to enroll at Bryant University at the age of 17. “I want to be challenged. I want to sit in the classroom and feel dumb sometimes,” he laughs.
He also wanted an academic experience that he could shape to a perfect fit. “I wanted my education to be complex, something that was more well-rounded and could reflect my personality,” Leszczynski says.
Leszczynski started his college career as an Entrepreneurship major, with the aim of one day launching his own luxury fragrance business, but switched over to Management: Leadership and Innovation when he realized his true skill was working with others. “I believe I have a knack for talking to people, and helping them find their best selves,” he says. “If you put me in a room with 100 people, I’ll probably walk away with 102 business cards,” he jokes, in the manner of a person who’s not really joking.
"I wanted Thrive to be a nudge, the small confidence boost that helps students to recognize, and celebrate, themselves."
The Leadership and Innovation concentration was ideal for him because it was all about figuring out how your own uniqueness can be used to relate to and inspire others around you. Classes like “Power and Influence,” he says, helped him develop his own leadership style and learn how to make a difference both effectively and ethically.
Leszczynski’s path would take another turn where he took a course in immunity and disease with Dr. Kirsten Hokeness, professor and chair of Biological and Biomedical Sciences and director of Bryant’s School of Health and Behavioral Sciences, who helped him discover a passion for the material and led him to take on a second major — Health Sciences. The decision felt personal to Leszczynski, who was born with a blood disorder. “I’m no stranger to doctor visits,” he states. “Hematology, platelet petite, I learned those words when I was very young, so it was a program I could identify with.”
He’s now preparing for a career in public health with a focus on epidemiology and was recently accepted into Brown University’s prestigious Master of Public Health program. “I believe that I have a knack for talking to people, especially when it comes to the things I’m passionate about,” he explains. “You can have the best data in the world, the best qualitative analysis, the clearest correlations. But if you cannot communicate that to people, it all means nothing — and you can’t help them. The world, right now, needs people who can both understand the data and share it with clarity, and empathy, and heart.”
"If you have the courage to lead with your heart, that’s respected here at Bryant. It's honored."
In addition to taking courses in a range of subjects such as research methods, microbiology, and human health and disease, he also conducted research on gene expression in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biological and Biomedical Sciences Steven Weicksel. “You have to know the work from the ground up,” he says of the experience. “You can’t just learn the scientific data; you have to know where it comes from and the context.”
Examining that context has become a signature of Leszczynski’s. At this year’s Research and Engagement Day (known as REDay, on campus) he presented research on the ethics of safe injection sites and was recognized with REDay’s Provost’s Award, the event’s highest academic honor. He chose the subject because of its relevance to people’s lives and for the opportunity to dissect an important issue.
“It was a very complex, multifaceted topic — one which can be studied in a myriad of ways,” he says. “Being able to examine that appealed to me.”
Providing a platform
Beyond academics, Leszczynski has sought to indulge his creative side by hosting a radio program on Bryant’s own WJMF and performing in and directing theatrical productions for the Bryant Players theatre troupe. But his greatest contribution to the campus’s identity and culture is an innovation all his own.
Inspired by the idea of creating a platform that could tell important stories about the people of the Bryant community, Leszczynski assembled a team of fellow students and founded Thrive magazine. The bi-annual publication, now on its fourth issue, showcases the diversity, talents, and aspirations of Bryant’s students through features, columns, interviews, and photo spreads. “We sat down with everyone we featured and asked them ‘What would you like to say?’ he remembers.
The first issue garnered praise from across the community, inspiring a desire amongst Thrive’s staff to top themselves with each new edition. Their most recent effort, a high concept piece dedicated to portraying the vying themes of “Fire” and Ice,” is its most artistically ambitious yet. For Leszczynski, however, the magazine’s greatest virtue is the opportunity it offers his fellow students to express themselves.
"I am my identity and my life and my lifestyle and my passions. And the success I’ve found is because I’ve had the courage to be different."
His own identity, he reflects, plays a part in that. “I think it’s our responsibility to advocate for people who aren’t really being heard. Whatever platforms we have or create, we need to use them to help elevate others,” says Leszczynski, who is also a member of Bryant’s Senior Advisory Council — a select group of students chosen to offer feedback to Bryant’s president and his cabinet — and has helped incoming students find community and reassurance as an orientation leader.
“I want to be able to showcase the people around me — and I want them to be proud of themselves,” he says. “We so often hide away and dilute ourselves because we’re too scared or too insecure. I wanted Thrive to be a nudge, the small confidence boost that helps students to recognize, and celebrate, themselves.”
To that end, Leszczynski recently organized Bryant’s first Thrive Gala, an evening devoted to groundbreaking high fashion, complete with red carpet photographers, and the celebration of creativity and identity. “It was a way for everyone to showcase their individuality,” he says.
The focus on fashion was a conscious one. How we dress isn’t just about looking nice, Leszczynski notes, it’s a choice about who we want to be. “It’s one of the ways you decide who you are and how you want to present yourself to the world,” he says.
Choosing your outfit, notes Leszczynski, makes a statement — one that he takes very seriously (green, his favorite color, is nearly always a must, he shares). “I always hope that if someone saw one of my outfits on a garment rack or on display somewhere, they’d look at it and say, that's a Leszczynski,” he says.
Leading from the heart
His confidence in his identity, says Leszczynski, has been one of his strengths through his life, and a guiding star. But being gay in a predominantly straight culture that often carries with it prejudices, ignorance, and callousness requires effort, he says. “We see and experience the world differently — we see things in ways other people don't, because we have to,” says Leszczynski. “In order to survive, gay people need to accept and love themselves.”
Bryant’s Pride Center, a space for the university’s community members to explore LGBTQ, ally, and related issues, has been an invaluable resource, Leszczynski says, and he praises Meghan Kenneally, Pride Center and Advocacy Services coordinator, and Kelly Boutin, director of the Women’s Center and Pride Center, for their guidance and understanding. “I needed a place to be myself and I need support — I think any queer person needs support from other queer people,” he reflects. “They understand what it means to experience what I’ve experienced because they've lived it.”
In the end, Leszczynski returns to that simple mantra that has served him so well thus far — “confidence and authenticity” — and helped him create a path all his own. “If you have the courage to lead with your heart, that’s respected here at Bryant. It's honored. You have the choice to be who you are: If you feel like starting a group, do it. If you feel like wearing something, wear it. If you have the courage to be something, you can be it.
“I am my identity and my life and my lifestyle and my passions,” he states. “And the success I’ve found is because I’ve had the courage to be different.”