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Fulbright Scholarship winner has passion for teaching children, cultural diversity

Abigail LaPlaca will use her Fulbright award to travel to Panama to work with teachers who teach young children. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published April 23, 2015

“With education, anyone can achieve anything, but more importantly, our eyes are open to the shared humanity of us all — the humanity where class, societal and racial boundaries cease to exist.”
Abigail LaPlaca, student Fulbright scholar

Abigail LaPlaca — award-winning Latin American dance team choreographer, lover of languages, worldwide adventure-traveler, UB Presidential Scholar and 2015 Fulbright scholar — saw her vision of the transforming power of education come to life in an 8-year-old Dominican Republic girl named Tainalis.

While volunteering to teach English through UB’s Honors College during spring break her sophomore year, LaPlaca first saw Tainalis as she ran into the makeshift classroom in the small city of Monte Cristi. Tainalis was one of about 100 young students who had come to learn English in a program that teaches what LaPlaca called “the local, eager children.”

Once again, LaPlaca found a lasting connection revolving around education, cultural diversity and a shared sense of humanity.

“She scampered into the classroom, headed straight for the books and darted over to me with one firmly in hand,” LaPlaca recalled. “It was none other than ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’ by Dr. Seuss.

“We sat down in a corner together and began reading,” LaPlaca wrote in the personal statement that obviously spoke to the Fulbright judges. “I would say a word and she would repeat it. Soon, I realized that we were reading simultaneously.

“As my voice faded away, hers continued on alone, halting, yet clear: ‘Oh, the places you’ll go! You’re off to great places! Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!’”

LaPlaca, who turned 22 in March, willingly recounts this story with the zeal and expression of someone who savors language and who admits she doesn’t dodge the limelight. She tells it with all its conflicting joy and heartbreak. The rustic classroom with the concrete floor was surrounded by a typical Dominican environment: “brilliantly hued flora disguising and distracting from the crumbling, barbed-wire fenced dwellings that lined the hard, mud-packed streets of Monte Cristi,” the small, poor Dominican fishing village bordering on the Gulf of Mexico where LaPlaca spent her week as a teacher volunteer.

The experience with Tainalis illustrates how LaPlaca views education: Schools and classes that reach students can merge imagination and opportunity. Education can transform lives.

But all of LaPlaca’s infectious enthusiasm and passion include a more grim reality.

“My vision blurred as the thought occurred to me that her future would likely never be so bright,” LaPlaca wrote. “Still, I desperately wanted the picture Dr. Seuss had painted to become her reality. As she continued reading, I finally grasped that, with quality education, Tainalis would in fact have the opportunity to fight the imprisonment of her social class, and even travel to great places!

“I do not know if she comprehended what she was reading, but my own understanding was crystal clear: Education is the true leveler.”

LaPlaca remembers a colorful graffiti message on a brick wall while studying in Guayaquil, Ecuador, during her spring 2014 semester. ”Donde hay educacion, no hay distincion de clase,” it read. LaPlaca describes it as a “quiet announcement. Where there is education, there is no class distinction.”

“This means that with education, anyone can achieve anything, but more importantly, our eyes are open to the shared humanity of us all — the humanity where class, societal and racial boundaries cease to exist.”

This is vintage Abby LaPlaca. It’s an ardent message that hits home to her core value that education can overcome poverty and oppression. It’s about blending cultures and using languages — another LaPlaca passion — to connect, not separate. It’s about her overarching ambition to teach English as a second language in disadvantaged areas — which she hopes to do after graduation and her eight-month Fulbright — in an inner-city school in her hometown of Buffalo.

She also does it with a flair and charm and stagecraft reflective of the dancer liaison and choreographer with UB’s Latin American Student Association dance team, the group that took first place in UB’s 2015 International Fiesta. (In typical culture-merging style, LaPlaca is Italian and German, the daughter of Glen and Stephanie LaPlaca of Orchard Park. She joined LASA because she says she fell in love with the Spanish language, as well as with the cultures and people who speak it.)

“Abby LaPlaca epitomizes a Fulbrighter,” says Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships for UB. “She has had numerous international experiences where she has taught English. Here at UB, she has taught in the Honors College as a colloquium TA and in schools in the Buffalo Public Schools. She has a heart for service, teaching and international humanitarian work.”

LaPlaca will spend her Fulbright time in Panama, working at a university to be named later with teachers who teach young children. Her grant also will include some firsthand experience teaching children in their neighborhood schools.

She will bring her other experiences to her Panama adventure. She’ll tell you about the afternoon she spent “puenting,” a kind of Ecuadorian zip lining, or her hike up Machu Picchu in Peru. She swam with sea turtles in the Galapagos Islands, scuba-dived off the coast of Ecuador and rode horses in the Andes. After that, she’ll happily tell you stories about her travels through Italy.

LaPlaca recently won the competition to be UB’s student speaker during this year’s University Commencement ceremony. Her love of languages includes Arabic, and she admits her enthusiasm is as much about the food as the language.

But in the end, it’s her appreciation of how education and cultures come together that fuels her young, but ardent life’s path.

“My moment of greatest challenge and achievement occurred at an English teaching internship in a low-income school in Guayaquil, Ecuador,” she wrote to the Fulbright judges. “From last-minute changes in lesson plans to the daily guessing game of whether we would even have a chalkboard or a classroom, stumbling blocks were a guarantee.

“At first this was overwhelming, but what I learned was the importance of flexibility, the ability to cater to students’ needs and, most importantly, the remembrance of why I was there. The excitement of the children, their gratefulness to learn and the value of our cross-cultural dialogue dwarfed any obstacles that arose and cemented my desire to teach.”