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Meet the Leavells: One of Boise State’s most studious families

family portrait next to a lake
From left: Kade, Tonya, Jost and Peter Leavell, photo provided by Peter Leavell.

Imagine starting your freshman year of college with your older brother standing by your side, ready to offer advice and support. Now imagine starting college with your brother, mother and father all enrolled as fellow students, ready to cheer you on. Such is the life of Kade Leavell, who joined the rest of her family to officially become a Boise State Bronco this fall. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in film and television.

Her journey to Boise State University started in high school, when she would accompany family members to campus and study while they were in class.

“During days when I had no homework I would even sit in on a few of their classes,” the 17-year-old said. “As soon as the time came to choose a college, I knew Boise State would be my first choice. Going to Boise State is something that I have looked forward to and I am excited to finally be a part of it!”

Their path to Boise State began in 2004, when the family relocated from Colorado so that patriarch Peter Leavell could pursue his bachelor’s degree in history. 

“My family is originally from Wilder, several generations back,” the 43-year-old explained. “Life has pulled me away from Boise, but once Boise is in your blood, you never want to leave. You keep coming back. Simply put, you may try to find a better city, but the search is futile.”

With a history degree under his belt, Peter returned to Boise State in 2018 for a master’s degree in English literature. He graduated in spring 2020, yet he’s returning to campus this fall to tackle another master’s degree – once again, in history. 

He credits mentors like Boise State history professor Lisa Brady, associate professor of English Cheryl Hindrichs and assistant professor of English Reshmi Mukherjee with nurturing his intellectual curiosity and “opening my mind and heart to new levels of compassion and direction.”

Like many nontraditional and graduate students, schoolwork falls on top of a full schedule. Peter also teaches literature, history and rhetoric at a local academy, and works as a successful novelist. His first book, Gideon’s Call, was published in 2011 after he won $20,000 and a publishing contract through a writing contest.

“That first manuscript wasn’t a fluke. After I got my BA in history from Boise State, I sat down, every day for years, learning the craft of fiction and working hard to perfect my work. I do the same today,” he said.

Like her husband, 43-year-old Tonya knew she wasn’t finished at Boise State when she completed her bachelor’s degree in history of art and visual culture in 2019. 

“I also knew I wanted to work in education, so I switched departments to combine my love of art history and my love of education,” she said.

Tonya currently is pursuing a master’s degree in education, with a focus on curriculum and instruction development. She also teaches full time, and calls Boise State art professor LeeAnn Turner “an inspiration.”

“In addition to teaching great classes, she offered me the chance to serve as her TA,” Tonya said. “That opportunity shaped who I am as a teacher.”

So how, exactly, does a family of academics with full-time jobs and conflicting school deadlines manage to coexist peacefully – even lovingly? They use their own personalized defcon alert system.

“If I have a major paper due, then I am at defcon 2 and that means whoever is at defcon 3  (or lower stress level) does the cooking, runs errands and helps with the dog,” Tonya explained. “During finals, it is defcon 1 for everyone and there are no rules. If you want cereal or frozen pizza every night that week, go for it.” 

During defcon 5 on the other hand, Tonya says there will be vegetables – and everyone is expected to eat them. Having the defcon system allows the family to communicate clearly about stress, as well as the flexibility to set realistic expectations about people’s contributions to the household.

Jost Leavell, a 20-year-old senior majoring in philosophy and computer science, is proud of his academic family.

“We celebrate when any of us receive a good grade and comfort when we do not. Our family is very supportive of each other academically. We are one team, not opponents,” he said.

Jost leaned on that familial support in the spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted all Boise State classes to transition to remote learning. The move was a surprising struggle, he said, and staying with his family helped.

“This experience has really made me realize how much of a part of the learning experience at Boise State is the community,” he said. “While I am still in contact with my friends, not seeing them and exchanging thoughts and ideas in person has been a surprising drain.”

Whether classes were offered in-person or online, the entire family was eager to resume their diverse studies this fall.

“We all have a thirst for learning and for helping the community,” said Kade, who also will be continuing her studies at Ballet Idaho Academy. “For me, being able to do what I love alongside my family at Boise State is a huge honor.”

“I think sometimes we forget how lucky we are to have Boise State here,” Tonya added. “We don’t have to send our teens out of state to give them a good education. As adults, we can continue our education and grow our careers without leaving home. Boise State is a crucial part of making the Treasure Valley a great place to live.”