February 03, 2016 2:45PM
Alheli Aranda-Britez was just 17 when she arrived on the Pitt State campus five years ago from her home in Paraguay. It was frightening, exciting and sometimes confusing, all at the same time.
Today, Aranda is a confident young woman who is about to embark on an exciting career and sometimes she marvels at how much has taken place for her in the time she has spent in Pittsburg.
“I wouldn’t say I changed, so much,” Aranda said. “I’d say I found myself.”
Aranda grew up in a large extended family in Asunción, Paraguay. Her parents were musical and by the age of 4, she was studying piano. By the time she was a teenager, Aranda was already an accomplished musician and had her sights set on studying music in the U.S.
Pittsburg State, where Aranda’s aunt was already a student, made Aranda the best offer of any of the universities she applied to, but it was clear that even with scholarships, financing her education would be difficult.
“My dad said to me, ‘you are more than welcome to do this, but we are not in the financial situation to help. Try it and if you are not able to make it, it’s OK, just come back home,’” Aranda said.
By the end of her first semester, Aranda had her first campus job – helping with catering. She looked for every opportunity to work in order to pay the bills.
“Then I got another job after that one, and then another one,” Aranda said. “At one time I had six jobs -- just a few hours here and a few hours there.”
Even though she worked as much as she could, all the while balancing school and her music, it was sometimes impossible to make ends meet.
“One time I got home and there was an eviction notice on my door,” Aranda recalled.
Faculty in the Department of Music and the Office of International Programs noticed when Aranda was skipping meals and stepped in to make sure she was taking care of herself.
“I told her, ‘You can’t go without eating,’” said Cathy Lee Arcuino, now the director of International Programs and Services. “Tell me when you don’t have food.”
Aranda said the support she received from faculty and staff was one important reason she was able to earn her bachelor’s degree in 2014.
“I have had a lot of support from the Music Department and others on campus, which allowed me to finish my degree,” Aranda said.
With her bachelor’s degree in hand, Aranda landed a job as a graduate assistant on campus and began working on a master’s degree in human resources.
“I had a minor in international business as an undergraduate,” Aranda said, “and the graduate HR program here seemed just right for me.”
Aranda also joined and became active in ENACTUS, a student organization dedicated to learning and practicing entrepreneurism. Through that organization, Aranda secured a summer internship at the Kansas City offices of Bimbo Bakeries USA.
For two months last summer, Aranda lived with a relative in Kansas City and worked in the Bimbo Bakeries corporate offices. She had no car, but learned to navigate the one-and-a-half-hour bus commute to and from work.
“In Pittsburg, not having a car wasn’t so bad,” Aranda said, “but in Kansas City, it was much harder.”
At the end of her internship, the company asked Aranda if she would like to stay on and commute to the city one day a week.
“I said ‘yes,’ and found a car to make it happen,” Aranda said.
Aranda’s work impressed the company so much that recently, they offered her a full-time position with their HR team in Phoenix after she graduates in May.
“It is a great opportunity and the people I met there were warm and friendly,” Aranda said.
Aranda said she is excited about the next chapter of her life, although leaving her home of the past five years and the people who have helped her along the way will be difficult.
“It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter in my life,” Aranda said. “Pittsburg State has played a big part in my life and whenever I look back I will always remember that once a Gorilla, ALWAYS a Gorilla.”