UB's Abby LaPlaca wins Fulbright Scholarship

Student and humanitarian will spend next year teaching in Panama


When Abby LaPlaca asked “the troublemaker” in her classroom at Buffalo Public School 76 if he was OK, he said no. But he didn’t want to tell her why – at first. Upon further prodding, LaPlaca got him to open up.

The boy’s uncle had been stabbed just the night before.

“Of course I was not expecting that answer,” LaPlaca said. “This boy is 11 years old and this is what he’s dealing with and he’s in school right now and didn’t tell anyone … This made me realize just how different things are for some kids.”

LaPlaca, a senior Spanish major, has a passion for improving education across all cultures and languages – she calls it her “purpose in life.” She’ll be able to make this passion a reality by spending eight months in Panama next year teaching on a Fulbright Scholarship.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program “is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide,” according to its website. The program awards approximately 1,900 grants each year and operates in 140 countries across the globe.

Throughout her time in Panama, LaPlaca will teach English for 20 hours a week and work on a youth bilingual literacy project.

“The education system [in the United States] for minorities and recent immigrants is really difficult,” LaPlaca said. “People don’t realize there’s cultural differences in many of these schools and in the way people learn, and also obvious language barriers. From what I’ve seen and learned firsthand this is all a really big problem.”

LaPlaca is no stranger to international culture. She taught English in the Dominican Republic her sophomore year as part of a one-week volunteer trip through UB’s Honors College, studied abroad in Ecuador her junior year and studied abroad in Italy over this past winter break.

Her passion for improving education began at School 76, or the Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy, where she interned for two years. She worked with individual or groups of students who needed extra attention, graded papers and tests and assisted the teacher. Her experiences teaching in the inner-city Buffalo area enabled LaPlaca to see firsthand how difficult the education process is for immigrants, minorities and inner city students in general.

“For one, there is the language barrier – even at 76, where the teacher is bilingual,” LaPlaca said. “At any given time there are kids in the classroom who have no idea what is being said.”

On top of the language barrier, many of these immigrant and minority students are from inner-city neighborhoods and dealing with things that the average U.S. student doesn’t have to deal with.

LaPlaca applied for the Fulbright Scholarship specifically to go to Panama to teach English. She knew she wanted to go to Latin America and liked Panama’s program because she would be teaching in higher education.

“I decided I wanted to work in a university setting so I could teach English to people who could then go teach it to others … I was trying to go for maximum impact,” LaPlaca said.

LaPlaca discovered her love for Latin American culture accidentally. When she was a freshman – and still undecided about her major – she went with her friends to a salsa dance audition hosted by the Latin American Student Association (LASA). She ended up uncovering a “hidden talent” for salsa dancing and a hidden love for the entire Latin American culture.

“The thing that sealed the deal for me [in deciding to be a Spanish major] was joining LASA. I got super sucked in. I really loved the people and the culture,” LaPlaca said.

LaPlaca was encouraged to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship by Elizabeth Colucci, UB’s coordinator of nationally competitive fellowships and scholarships.

“Abby was the perfect candidate for the Fulbright,” Colucci said. “It’s a mutual exchange of cultures so they’re looking for Americans who want to share their culture and their way of life with others … Along with a level of language ability, the students really have to have a clear sense of the country and how they’ll fit into it, so they have to have a good understanding of themselves as well.”

Dylan Burns, a senior architecture major and 2013 winner of the US-UK Fulbright Commission Summer Institute Scholarship, can attest to the international exchange of cultures the Fulbright program facilitates.

“[The Fulbright scholarship] turned out to be a great way to experience the city and people [of Nottingham, England]. It was great to see the city in as many different ways as possible and I learned a lot about myself and the direction in which I wanted to take my studies,” Burns said. “People make a place and their stories can be invaluable to us if we take the time to listen to them.”

Experiences like LaPlaca’s time interning at School 76 have shaped her future aspirations. Although she is not entirely sure of her plans, she knows that working with students like the ones at 76 will be part of them.

LaPlaca looks forward to sharing similar experiences in Panama, and being able to learn more about herself and the Latin American culture that she has grown to love.

“When I come back from Panama, I do want to go to grad school to get my teaching certification, I think to do English as a second language, and then I might do Teach for America, or something like that but I definitely want to work in inner-city schools with minority students,” LaPlaca said.

Sophia McKeone is a staff writer and can be reached at features@ubspectrum.com