Congratulations Aaliyah Balcacer!
Aaliyah Balcacer learned a lot about herself and the education system at Pace University. Her first two years were marked with setbacks and confusion as she tried to adapt to a predominantly white institution. Now, she says “I’m trying to break the school system from the inside.” As a first-generation college student who considered herself to be “pretty shy,” it took her some time to find her voice. Now that she’s found it, she’s learning to use it to help others.
Aaliyah can point to three significant experiences that prepared her for leadership and activism, beginning with her participation in Freedom & Citizenship. She still keeps in touch with many of the friends she made that year, including her TAs, and she talks about it often. In fact, just recently she was telling her mom, “thank god you put me in DDC!” Through the Double Discovery Center she enrolled in Freedom & Citizenship where she says “it was like my brain expanding.” “We weren’t reading easy things: we were analyzing deep texts and talking about politics in depth,” she explains, elaborating further: “That opened my mind up to a lot of political issues that usually people only start talking about in college. There I was having those discussions at 16 and 17 years old. It was so meaningful that I could start those conversations so young.”
“We weren’t reading easy things: we were analyzing deep texts and talking about politics in depth..It was so meaningful that I could start those conversations so young.”
After spending her senior year working on an F&C civic project on gender equality, she entered college in the fall of 2016 eager to discuss social justice. To her dismay, she had a difficult time finding classmates interested in politics, and she had to reach out to her old F&C friends to have those conversations. She was disappointed and confused: there were parts of her new school that seemed to support her burgeoning political interests, such as Pace’s efforts to register its students to vote and help them cast ballots on election day. Other parts seemed less promising, such as the lack of diversity among faculty and students. Coming from Washington Heights and the Bronx, she was surprised to find herself in a suite of all white roommates and taking classes from mostly white professors.
Out of the lack of diversity came Aaliyah’s second transformative experience. As part of the requirements for her major in nursing, Aaliyah took an introduction to statistics for nursing class taught by Pace’s only Dominican professor, Dr. Emilio Fernandez. Aaliyah was mesmerized by the way Professor Fernandez could relate “anything under the sun” to mathematics. She became a regular fixture in his office hours, and when he suggested she join fellow students in creating a club about Dominican culture, she jumped at the opportunity. It took great effort to get the club approved and funded, but her group persisted, and in 2019 the Dominican Student Association was born. As a co-creator and board member of the club she is interested in thinking about how they can support Dominicans at home and in the diaspora.
During COVID, Aaliyah’s international interests turned local as she supported the communities near her campus in Pleasantville, New York. Last year, she worked at the nearby Veteran’s Administration Hospital and as a Resident Assistant in her dorm. The practice of caring for others as an RA was her most transformative college experience. She not only thrived in the position, she also found ways to step up as a leader because of it. For someone who felt so lost and afraid of her own voice early on, she explains, “the RA role really gave me family away from home, and making an impact on others makes me proud.” The same was true for her patients at the VA, she says, who appreciated her showing up when so many others couldn't.
“You need to step out of your happy place, even if you encounter things you don’t like.”
Upon reflecting on her transformation in college, Aaliyah offers some advice for students following in her footsteps. “Growth doesn’t come from a place of comfort,” she states, adding “You need to step out of your happy place, even if you encounter things you don’t like.” Aaliyah is now challenging herself at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell as a Staff Nurse in their Ambulatory Surgery Operating Room. Aaliyah was drawn to surgery because of the immediate results she could see in patients, as well as the doctors and nurses in the room. She loves the “collaboration and teamwork,” and “the sense of trust between the team,” which Aaliyah says is “incredibly important to have in any job, but especially in nursing.” Though her new job can be intimidating at times, she says, “this is my dream hospital to work at, I’ve been volunteering here since I was in high school!”