New award memorializes beloved Penn State alumna, teacher, friend

Susan Burlingame
February 24, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new award to assist students enrolled in the Department of African American Studies in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts has been established in memory of Penn State alumna Yaayaa M. Hunt, who died unexpectedly at age 26 on Dec. 29, 2019.

“She had the biggest, brightest personality, and for her, the sky was the limit,” said Penn State alumna Alecia Panuski, a friend of Hunt’s, who is helping create the Yaayaa M. Hunt ’16 Award with a $5,000 lead pledge. “After talking with some friends from Lion Line and Yaayaa’s mother, I knew we had to do something — to start a fund in her name — right away.”

Hunt grew up in southeast Washington, D.C., the first in her family to attend college. While at Penn State, she worked as a student supervisor for “Lion Line,” Penn State’s telefund organization. Hunt also was involved in several campus organizations and was universally revered by peers and professors.

After graduating, Hunt returned to her hometown to teach. Her most recent position was at Eastern Senior High School, where she taught mostly black and low-income students.

“It was clear that Yaayaa cared deeply about black students, black people, and black history because of what she had been exposed to growing up,” said AnneMarie Mingo, assistant professor of African American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. “(Washington) D.C. mattered to her, and she became a bridge, an inspiration, and a role model to students in her community.” Hunt had taken one of Mingo’s classes, titled “Scandal: Black Women, Power and Politics,” where her “zest for life” was evident, according to Mingo.

“The cost of this kind of loss is just too great,” added Mingo. “Yaayaa was doing work that she loved in a community she loved. She was reaching students and touching the next generation. This memorial fund extends a legacy allowing African American studies students for years to come to know Yaayaa's name and what she stood for here at Penn State and beyond."

“To me, the greatest tragedy is that there are students who will never have the chance to learn from her or to know her energy, her positivity, and her determination to help others succeed,” said Panuski. “She was a rare find in a person and a friend.”

Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, met Hunt in November 2019 at an event to introduce the new dean to Washington, D.C. alumni.

“It was wonderful to have had the opportunity to meet Yaayaa,” he said. “In that one meeting, she made a deep impression, and I was shocked to learn about her passing. It’s such a tragedy to lose someone so young with so much potential. At age 26, Yaayaa was already making an important impact as a teacher of students from low-income families and underrepresented communities. My hope is that this award will help students in our African American studies program who aspire to make a difference, just like Yaayaa did.”

“It means so much to me to be able to do something for someone who had such a profound impact on my life,” concluded Panuski. “Yaayaa and ‘giving back’ are synonymous. She loved Penn State, and she loved African American studies, and I know she would have loved that a fund has been set up to reflect her passion for education.”

To become an endowed fund, the Yaayaa M. Hunt ’16 Memorial Award needs to reach $20,000 within the next five years. To contribute to the fund, contact Geoff Halberstadt, senior director of development in the College of the Liberal Arts, at or 814-865-3173, or visit this link to give online.

The Yaayaa M. Hunt ’16 Memorial Award helps to advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With support from devoted philanthropists who believe in Penn State and its mission, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit

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Last Updated February 24, 2020