Seeking Challenge, with a Smile

Nina Leach Portrait

Seeking Challenge, with a Smile

MBU merit scholarships support gifted 14-year-old as she moves past childhood developmental delays, pursues medical career.
Nina Leach, who joins Mary Baldwin as a first-year student in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG) this fall, has had a remarkable journey of tenacity and grace under pressure, and she’s only 14 years old.

Diagnosed as a child with developmental delays, being nonverbal, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Nina worked day in and day out through intensive physical, speech, and occupational therapy sessions and a specialized school to overcome these challenges, all while staying positive and focused on her future.

When she transitioned to a general education setting, she was considered below grade level, but she pushed herself forward to achieve advanced milestones and academic success.

A native of Brooklyn, Nina ranked in the top 1% of all New York students on every state exam she took. Plus she was named A Better Chance Scholar at the Perkiomen School, a college-preparatory boarding school in Pennsylvania, earning more than $60,000 each year in scholarships for seventh and eighth grade, which she just completed.

Now she’s attending college early at MBU, pursuing her goal of becoming a brain surgeon.

Her mother, Nefertiti Leach, says it eloquently: “It was always in her eyes.” Words that were waiting. Intelligence and kindness to share. Dreams to work toward.

As Nina starts the next stage of her journey at Mary Baldwin, she and her mom reflect on some of the difficulties they’ve navigated and the achievements they’ve celebrated along the way.

“As far as I can remember, I had so many therapists in my home, so many times a week, it was like they were family. My therapists were amazing and helped me focus on the challenges and not make it about anything being wrong with me.”

NINA LEACH ’24

When she was younger, Nina was unable to express herself with speech. But she still had thoughts, many of them, and she worked with therapists for seven years on strategies and techniques to address starting out as nonverbal.

“As far as I can remember, I had so many therapists in my home, so many times a week, it was like they were family,” she said. “My therapists were amazing and helped me focus on the challenges and not make it about anything being wrong with me.”

Going to the structured and rigorous Success Academy in New York City for middle school saw Nina’s academic strengths blossom, but there came a problem. Her school moved locations from Brooklyn — where Nina and her family live — to midtown Manhattan, an hour and 45 minutes away.

“Attending was clearly no longer an option in my mind, as a single parent of three,” Nina’s mother, Nefertiti, remembers. “Such a commute in the opposite direction seemed impossible.”

Nina tried two other schools, but did not find the challenge she needed to excel. She worried that she would again fall behind her potential. Her teachers and friends missed her, and wanted to support her return.

“The defining moment was when I walked by her on the phone with her former schoolmates, just thinking she was missing them, only to hear her asking questions subject by subject about what they were learning in class, jotting it down, and then self-teaching via YouTube,” said Nefertiti. “I had to at least give this new location a shot.”

So at age 11, Nina left her home at 6 a.m. on school days and commuted alone from Brooklyn via subway train to the 42nd Street/Port Authority station near Times Square in Manhattan, the busiest transportation hub in New York City. She then walked another 20 minutes to her school’s new location in Hudson Yards.

“Success Academy is known for academically rigorous, long days,” said Nefertiti. “Nina did not shy away from this, in fact she thrived from it.”

“I was so happy to find out that there was a chance I could go to college, which I felt would be the perfect challenge for me.”

NINA LEACH ’24

When Nina earned her scholarship to the Perkiomen School, she tested into high school courses, took Chinese and Spanish, and played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse.

But she still felt like there was more opportunity waiting for her, and she wanted to get closer to her dream of becoming a doctor. Enter PEG, which is a highly selective program for gifted girls age 13 to 16 in MBU’s College for Women. The program is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

“I was so happy to find out that there was a chance I could go to college, which I felt would be the perfect challenge for me,” Nina said. “I was absolutely ecstatic when I found out I was accepted!”

Nina’s passion is for science, especially studying the brain and how it controls the whole body. At MBU, where she earned the president’s scholarship for merit, she’s most excited about working with professors and fellow students in the lab.

“I fell in love with the science labs during my tour,” she said. “I love hands-on learning.”

Though Nina is always seeking her next challenge, she also enjoys down time hanging out with friends, playing sports, making TikTok videos, and quoting Hamilton.

With specialized opportunities for students to bond and have fun in addition to their studies, PEG is known as a very supportive community where individuals are appreciated for who they are, a characteristic Nina shares.

“Nina’s friends point out that her academic pursuits are all personal and never, ever competitive,” said Nefertiti. “She embraces opportunities to grow in a very kindhearted way.

I will be forever torn over what I am most proud of when it comes to Nina … her brilliantly big mind, her gleamingly big smile, or her forever-giving big heart.”

“Nina’s friends point out that her academic pursuits are all personal and never, ever competitive. She embraces opportunities to grow in a very kindhearted way.”

NEFERTITI LEACH, NINA’S MOM