From Puerto Rico to Penn State: A journey to becoming a student marshal

Leon Valsechi
May 07, 2020

At her home in Caguas, Puerto Rico, in 2016, Daniela Claudio Pagán opened her acceptance letter from Penn State, and although she had never visited the University, she felt a connection to Happy Valley. Just more than four years later, the graphic design senior has been chosen as the College of Arts and Architecture’s student marshal.

The college destination decision wasn’t an easy one for Claudio Pagán. Flights to University Park were expensive and without the means to be joined by her parents on campus tours, she did what any aspiring college student would do — Googled.

“One of the first universities that came up was Penn State,” Claudio Pagán said. “The photos of the campus looked perfect and it became one of my top choices.”

After completing financial aid applications and getting a better understanding of the potential financial burden after graduation, several schools were out of the picture for Claudio Pagán. But to her surprise, not Penn State.

With the hopes of becoming a Nittany Lion, she began to work with the College of Arts and Architecture’s multicultural affairs and recruitment coordinator, Curt Marshall. Through this connection, she was introduced to the Bunton-Waller Program.

Named in honor of Mildred Settle Bunton (1932), recognized as the first African American woman to graduate from Penn State, and Calvin Hoffman Waller (1904), believed to be Penn State’s first African American graduate, the program attracts diverse students from various backgrounds who have demonstrated academic potential and are eligible to attend Penn State.

“Curt was like an angel for me and my family,” Claudio Pagán said. “Without his help and guidance, I would not have been able to attend Penn State and I’m not sure what things would look like now.”

After applying to the program, Claudio Pagán was selected as a Bunton-Waller Fellow, which gave her the financial boost she needed to get to Penn State. And in the late summer of 2016, she set foot on campus for the first time.

“It was just like a movie,” Claudio Pagán said. “All of the images of Penn State in my head were real. It was one of the most diverse places I had ever seen.”

She began her education preparing to gain acceptance into the graphic design program, but because English is her second language, the academic transition wasn’t as smooth as she wanted it to be.

During her first semester, she struggled to articulate complex thoughts and to “get those thoughts onto paper in English.” The result was regular calls to her mother, Julia Pagán, who graduated from University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus, and her father, Javier Claudio, who graduated from Purdue University.

"My mother has always been the kind of person to tell me ‘If you really want to do it, and that's what's going to make you happy, go for it. We will support you, and everything else is secondary,’” Claudio Pagán said. “My parents are my inspiration and they are the reason why I am here today.”

The steady advice from her parents, especially from her father who graduated from an American university, helped her to focus on practicing English until, Claudio Pagán said, it finally “clicked.”

The progression of her English skills and dedication to her coursework created a comfortable cadence for Claudio Pagán’s time at Penn State. In addition to academic success, she found a balance between course work and travelling home to Puerto Rico over the fall, holiday and summer breaks. That rhythm was broken in September of 2017 when Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Just days before the category five storm made landfall in her homeland, she received a call from her family to warn of a potential loss of communication. After the storm hit, she lost contact and for more than 48 hours, she anxiously waited for a call.

During that time, her younger brother and father searched for an area where they could get cellphone service. They were able to navigate by car a debris-filled road that led to the top of a hill where dozens of other people with the same idea found success.

“They had weak cell service but, thank god, they were able to let me know that everyone in my family was safe,” Claudio Pagán said. “We are all very close and to us, family is everything. It was a big relief.”

Although recovery for her family from the hurricane would take months, she was able to have the peace of mind she needed to continue her pursuit of a Penn State graphic design degree with an entrepreneurship and innovation minor.

During her time in the program, she was the graphic design class representative and an Arts Ambassador for the College of Arts and Architecture. This academic year, she served as the design director for TEDxPSU, and she led the team of designers that branded the event. She has been an active member in the Puerto Rican Student Association and a member of the Outcast Dance Team.

“My time at Penn State has been immensely transformative,” Claudio Pagán said. “I will look back on these years as some of the best of my life and I’m honored and humbled to be selected as the college marshal. It all doesn’t even feel real.”

After Penn State moved to remote learning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Claudio Pagán returned home to Puerto Rico. She will be honored during the college’s virtual graduation celebration at 3 p.m. May 9 at artsgrad.psu.edu.

After graduating, she intends to stay in Puerto Rico to be close to her family, and work toward landing a full-time job at a design firm.

Last Updated May 19, 2020