Alexandra Paniagua, a 2021 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, grew up in one of the most diverse communities in the country, but it was at Pitt-Bradford that she learned more about her own Latino culture.
Now she is working to provide more support for Latino students through a scholarship named in honor of the club that helped her discover her own culture, the Latin and Caribbean American Student Association.
Paniagua came to Pitt-Bradford from Lancaster County, which has a large and diverse refugee community inside the city of Lancaster, but is not very diverse outside of the city.
Her father is Latino, but she said she does not appear to be Latina herself. “I definitely walk through the world as a white girl,” she said. Her father’s parents did not live nearby her while she was growing up. “I felt very disconnected from my culture growing up because I could never get close enough to my abuelos.”
When she arrived at Pitt-Bradford in 2018, she discovered LACASA.
“LACASA helped me find some of my culture,” she said, including learning more about issues that are important throughout the Spanish-speaking diaspora. “I was really looking for a sense of community.”
In her first year, Paniagua joined the club. In her second year, she served as secretary, and in her third and final year (she graduated in three years), she served as president.
“We did a lot of cultural things around campus,” she said. Since she grew up as a dancer, she enjoyed learning and teaching bachata, a dance originating in the Dominican Republic.
“One of my favorite things about LACASA is that we shared a culture amongst ourselves and across campus, but we also learned a lot about what is going on in South America.”
In 2019, Dr. Diego Cortes, assistant professor of communications, arrived at Pitt-Bradford and became the club’s advisor.
“That was a big milestone for campus and for us that we had the first tenure-track Latino professor on campus,” Paniagua said. “That was really refreshing.”
In her senior year, she wanted to do something that would help future students and that could leave a lasting impact in LACASA’s name.
“I think finances are something that keep people from coming to college and achieving the goals that they’ve had,” she said. “I want to see Pitt-Bradford making more steps to provide a welcoming environment.”
Paniagua is herself pursuing her goals as a graduate student studying toward a doctorate in physical therapy at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
When funded, the LACASA Scholarship will prioritize awarding the scholarship to students with a Latin American or Caribbean heritage. To learn more about creating a scholarship or to donate to the LACASA Scholarship, contact the university’s Office of Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement at 814-362-5091 or visit upb.pitt.edu/giving.