Leah Pacarro’s journey of self discovery

by Catalina Myers  |   

leah pacarro
Leah Pacarro, a kinesiology major in UAA’s Department of Health, Physical Education & Recreation was recently awarded a 2020 African American, Hispanic, Asian, International and Native American (AHAINA) Students of Excellence scholarship. (Photo courtesy, Leah Pacarro)

Every week for nearly two months, Leah Pacarro, a kinesiology major in UAA’s Department of Health, Physical Education & Recreation, had been watching the African American, Hispanic, Asian, International and Native American (AHAINA) Students of Excellence scholarship emails, encouraging her to apply, roll into her inbox. She wanted to apply, but she was filled with self-doubt — she didn’t think she matched up to other applicants.

She knew the kinds of students who were applying. Not only did they have excellent grades, they also had outstanding resumes and materials, filled with their academic accomplishments and their involvement within the university and local communities to add to their ePortfolios — a highlight reel intended to display a person’s top accomplishments. She was intimidated, but at the last minute, pushed her self-doubt aside and decided to apply.

Born and raised in Anchorage, a graduate of Service High School, Pacarro is a first-generation college student whose parents moved to Alaska from the Big Island of Hawaii. She is the oldest of five siblings and has been working a full-time job and taking a full course load each semester to pay for tuition and bills. She intended to study at Seattle University, but at the last minute got cold feet and decided to attend UAA, first signing on to be a criminal justice major, but soon realized she needed a more hands-on degree program.

“Growing up, the relationship between my parents was rough and I found a lot of comfort in the relationship with my dad, which revolved around a lot of physical activity, whether it was going out for a run, going hiking or going to the gym to lift weights,” said Pacarro. It was a completely different direction, but not totally surprising as growing up she was so active and it wasn’t until she learned more about UAA’s B.S. in kinesiology program that she realized she could merge her lifelong passion of physical fitness with a career.

“I’ve been in the program for about three years,” she said. “I’m a little bit behind because of that first year in criminal justice, but plan on graduating from UAA and then applying to grad school for physical therapy.”

As a first-generation college student, Pacarro has a lot on her shoulders, from helping with her five younger siblings at home to working 40-hour weeks, while balancing a full course load, her days are stacked high and long. She said the COVID-19 pandemic provided a little respite from her normally hectic life, enough that she was able to apply for the AHAINA scholarship.

“I had been receiving emails for months and I thought it looked pretty cool, but honestly, it was just so much time and effort to put into that portfolio,” Pacarro said. “It’s something that really reflects who you are as a person. I spent so much time on it and customized it and put as much of myself into it as I could.”

She poured her heart into her portfolio project, making sure it was organized, reflecting who she was as an Alaskan, while also honoring her Hawaiian roots. Her efforts paid off. “I was so surprised when I learned that I had won — like me — of all those other finalists. I’m not as involved as I could be, but I have good grades. The other finalists were so much more involved in academics and volunteering, so I was shocked when I heard my name.”

It was an eye-opening experience she said, taking the time to gather all the materials needed to include in her portfolio and she realized, while looking over the course of her nearly four years at UAA, that actually, she had done a lot — a lot to be proud of.

“I’ve never really reflected on all of this and it really helped me to center myself,” Pacarro said. She said the entire experience helped her organize a clear path for her goals of graduating and then applying to grad school. “I learned more about myself than I had ever known before.”

For Pacarro, the scholarship couldn’t have come at a better time. After creating her ePortfolio to apply for the AHAINA scholarship, she realized her strong desire to be more connected to UAA’s community of students and to find an internship opportunity. But since she is working full time to pay for bills and school, squeezing in extracurriculars just hasn’t been an option. Her scholarship funds will allow her to cut back her work hours, which frees up some time in her schedule to pursue other activities on campus and she’s excited about that.

“I want to become more involved with UAA in general — but it’s been difficult,” said Pacarro. “Right now I’m going to be a mentor through the AHAINA program and I am really excited about that. I’m applying for a couple of different physical therapy offices in town and the rest is really prepping for graduate school.”