Student Spotlight: Alejandra Buitrago

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

B.A. Journalism and Communication, Class of 2014 Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska Fun Fact: Alejandra sang the national anthem at her high school graduation.

Once, while making a birthday cake for her sister, Alejandra Buitrago accidentally folded into the batter a cup of strawberry jam meant to be spread between the cake's layers and baked all the mix in one pan instead of dividing it between three pans, as the recipe directed.

I AM UAA: Alejandra Buitrago

Alejandra Buitrago, station manager of KRUA 88.1 FM, will be leaving for her Peace Corps assignment in Burkina Faso shortly after graduating in December. (Photo by Theodore Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage)

"Which was discovered 23 minutes after baking at 350 degrees, opening the oven and discovering the shell of cake with a liquid inside, because there was too much mix to bake through, of course," the UAA journalism major wrote.

Then, a spark of ingenuity ignited an idea.

"I decided to split whatever mix was left into cupcake holders," she wrote. "So the happy ending was not that my sister ended up with a perfect large cake, but eight imperfect tiny cakes...P.S. The jam in the mix added wonderful flavor."

That resourceful, positive approach to life has infused Alejandra's five years at UAA, where she's served as a student senator and student body president, engaged in a sorority, plunged into Goose Lake to help Special Olympics long before ice bucket challenges became trendy, and, most recently, started serving up news and tunes via UAA's campus radio station, KRUA 88.1 FM, where she works as station manager.

Alejandra soon will jet away to the African nation of Burkina Faso, where she plans to spend two years working for the Peace Corps.

Finding a good fit

Alejandra grew up in Anchorage, the daughter of Colombian immigrants who moved here after living in New York. Her father, Jairo, works as a dental technician and makes crowns and bridges. He used to pay Alejandra to eat jalapeños when she was little. Her mother, Eugenia, has, for 17 years, operated Tia's Gourmet Sausages downtown near Fourth Avenue and, at home, cooked Colombian favorites like rice and beans, chicharrón, patacones and arepas.

"I just grew up seeing a typical Hispanic structure from my parents," Alejandra said. "My mom always had food on the table and the house was always clean. I think I'm very much like that in a sense because I always want to take care of the people around me, and I'm trying to learn to cook for my future husband."

Alejandra, the youngest of four children, decided she wanted to become a doctor after her father nearly died of a stomach ulcer when she was 6. She attended Service High School, but didn't, then, immerse herself in activities.

"In high school, I wasn't involved in anything," she said. "I was that awkward kid who was very unsociable. I hung out with all the nerds and geeks-we all took AP and honors classes. I joined the tennis team so I wouldn't have to take a gym class. I just wanted to get through high school because I didn't enjoy it."

Alejandra enrolled in sociology and math classes at UAA during her senior year of high school.

"It wasn't until I came to UAA that I was like, oh, there's a bigger world out here-there's so many things I can do and get involved in," she said.

This epiphany happened as Alejandra started her "true" freshman year at UAA, when she enrolled in a biology lab and met a girl who became her lab partner. The girl belonged to a sorority, Sigma Sigma Sigma, and asked Alejandra to attend a recruitment event.

"I was only able to attend one event because I was working and going to school full time," she said. "I went, but didn't expect to hear anything back."

She met members of the sorority at a dance and then received a bid to join.

"I guess they all really liked my dance moves," Alejandra joked.

Another friend at the sorority, Amie Stanley, who was then student body vice president, suggested Alejandra run for student senate.

"So I did that and got in," she said. "I fell in love with student government, how much students can be heard when in a position of leadership. I was the chair of legislative affairs, went to all the UAA governance meetings. When I decided to run for president, I didn't realize what I'd got myself into. I won, and served as president for a year. I accomplished as much as I could, got a lot out of it I wouldn't have got anywhere else."

Alejandra took part in the search for a new provost.

"I was working with other administrators, deans and professors, and I was on the same level with them," she said. "We flew down to Seattle together, ate lunch together at the airport. It was like, wow, they're really listening to me, validating my opinions. And being able to go down to Juneau and talk to legislators was a huge opportunity."

The experience grew valuable skills.

"I learned the university has flaws, but at the same time there are people who care so much about this university and this campus," she said. "That's their entire life, doing the best for students, seeing what it is that's going to improve the lives of students. What I got out of it was learning how to deal with a variety of people, learning how to speak up and, if there's something I don't like or don't agree with, saying that."

Alejandra paid attention to any problems she experienced on campus.

"When I had a difficulty, I called [Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs] Bruce Schultz and said, 'This is what's happening, as a student and student leader, this is why it's a bigger deal than just what's affecting me.' I was able to take my personal struggles and see them as part of a bigger picture. I'm not the only person having this problem with, for example, account services-there are other students having this problem; I'm just the only voice you get to hear."

Her childhood experience with her father's illness had motivated Alejandra to enroll in classes that would propel her toward becoming a doctor or nurse. She reevaluated that goal almost immediately after taking classes at UAA.

"The first anatomy and physiology class, the teacher said, 'This class will be your life this semester,'" Alejandra said. "Immediately I realized that memorizing bones in my body and learning to take blood pressure was not my calling. I went straight back to my high school and spoke with my favorite teachers and my adviser and they all told me the same thing-I love to talk to people, I love to write and I love to ask questions. So I decided to take some journalism classes and see how I liked it. Not only do I love my major, I feel like this is what I was made to do. I want to be a foreign correspondent."

Steeping herself in music, food, culture

Alejandra finished her term as president in April 2013 and soon, a new opportunity crossed her path. Ever since she was a child, her parents had traveled with their daughter and used permanent fund dividends to help Alejandra explore.

"I first traveled when I was only a few months, to Oklahoma," she said. "Since then, I've been to more than 10 countries and four continents. However, traveling this past year has been the only time I was truly on my own and it was thrilling."

Alejandra met some American tourists who retired in Ecuador and told her she had to go. She bought a ticket to travel between the Fall 2013 and Spring 2014 semesters.

"I then was invited by a friend to travel to Thailand with her for a month," she said. "So I said yes after my mom said, 'Of course you should go! School will always be there, Alejandra.' My friend was flying from Hungary to Thailand, so I bought a flight from Hungary to Thailand and from Thailand home."

She dropped all her classes and decided to travel before meeting her friend in Hungary. Alejandra spent a week in Cologne, Germany. Through a website, she found a ride to Paris in a minivan with some people from North Africa who didn't speak English. Then came 10 days in Italy, a 13-hour bus ride to Budapest and a month backpacking in Thailand before touching base at home and flying off to see the cathedrals, street festivals and rainforests of Ecuador. She bungee jumped off a bridge, paraglided and savored the culture of a country just south of her parents' home nation.

Blazing eclectic trails

After returning from her travels in January, Alejandra delved into working at KRUA. She had wanted to volunteer at the station long before she started working there, but school work, political activities and off-campus jobs-as a barista and, every summer, at her mother's hotdog stand-consumed most of her time.

"[I] knew I didn't know music well enough to have my own show, so I was hoping to contribute my time by doing PSAs and liners," she said.

KRUA's station manager, Audri Pleas, was graduating and someone needed to take the reins after her departure. Alejandra applied for the job and, in July, got it.

Alejandra will turn over the job to a new station manager after she graduates in December. Then, in January, she journeys away to her assignment with the Peace Corps-two years in Burkina Faso, where she will help farmers market their agricultural products.

"When it came to deciding which country, I knew I didn't want to go to South America because it's too easy," she said. "I already speak Spanish. I'm going to be comfortable with the culture, comfortable with the food, comfortable with the people. I don't want to do this to be comfortable. I really wanted to put myself in the most obscure and difficult situation because I wanted to challenge myself."

She saw a list of African countries that were possibilities: Morocco, Ghana, Mozambique, Burkina Faso.

"I thought, is that an island?" Alejandra said. "I circled Burkina Faso because I had no idea where it is. My sister gave me a beautiful map of the world-it was my favorite thing to stare at. I really wanted to put myself in a situation where I needed to learn a new language-French. It's going to be a huge culture shock, but when else am I going to be able to go to Africa for two years and help people?"

Alejandra says her days in high school seem far from the place where she finds herself now.

"There are people who feel that is the pinnacle, but I didn't reach that point in high school and don't think I've reached it yet, either," she said. "I feel like I'm still on that uprise, that I'm still doing, still achieving, still pushing myself."

Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement

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