KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A vocal performance major, Daniela Peña Cabreja routinely sings the praises of Western Michigan University. In addition to world-class vocal training and once-in-a-lifetime performance opportunities, WMU helped Peña Cabreja discover a new passion and career path.
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, her music career started at an early age. She performed in chamber music ensembles and even professional productions with the country's National Orchestra. Even with her early success, a long-term career in singing didn't seem realistic, so she settled on the "sensible route" and enrolled in an architecture program at a university in Santo Domingo.
"Yes, there was architecture, but every time there was an audition, I was there. Every time there was a gig, I was there," says Peña Cabreja.
Her persistence paid off and she earned a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music one summer. It was there she first saw a path to pursuing a music degree.
"I went home and thought, 'What am I doing with my life? I should rethink everything.' I started to look for schools (Berklee) recommended and found Western, and I was in love because the programs are so amazing," she says, citing the renowned Gold Company jazz ensemble and the opportunities in the voice performance program. "That was the beginning of 2016, and by September, I was already in Kalamazoo. I dropped everything and told architecture, 'Bye, I'm going to go for my dreams!'"
Peña Cabreja couldn't exactly sing for her supper once she landed in the United States. As an international student, visa restrictions meant she needed to get a job on campus in order to earn money. Throughout her time at Western, she's worked in dining halls, the Bernhard Center, the Student Recreation Center and as a campus tour guide. With each opportunity, she says she learned a little more about herself.
"I'd never worked anywhere else that wasn't music. So being there and having all of these new experiences, I found out that I was good at customer service, that I liked selling and marketing the University," she says, explaining how improving her English language, communication and leadership skills gave her the chance to serve in managerial positions along the way. "I started thinking about how I could mix both worlds. I love performing, I love singing, but I wanted to do more and use my skills in another way."
Art management emerged as a new lane that fit both of her passions—something she likely would not have discovered if not for the valuable experience she'd gained as a student employee.
"It completely changed the direction of my career," says Peña Cabreja, touting the guidance and support she received from people across campus, especially Ken Prewitt, voice area chair and professor, and Dan Guyette, dean of the College of Fine Arts. "I was always texting (Guyette) or sending him emails or seeing him in the hallway, and he gave me a lot of information about all these companies and organizations that were doing art management."
She was able to connect with a number of alumni and community partners with experience in the field to help chart her course.
"The School of Music is very good at putting students out there. We have a lot of opportunities for performing, for connecting with guest artists through master classes. When the cast of Broadway's 'Lion King' was performing at Miller Auditorium, there was an event where we could go sing with them. It was amazing," says Peña Cabreja, who also got an opportunity to perform with the Orchestra of the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria, during a six-week summer program. "It was an amazing opportunity."
Now poised to graduate Saturday, Dec. 19, with a degree in music performance and a minor in business, Peña Cabreja's opportunities at WMU are not finished. She begins graduate school in January, pursuing a master's in public administration. Ultimately, she hopes to use the skills she's developed at Western to expand music programs in Latin American countries.
"In the United States and in Europe, students have opportunities to start music education in elementary school. But in my country, everyone doesn't get that opportunity. If my parents hadn't put me into music academy when I was 7 years old, my life would have been completely different," she says, adding if it weren't for programs coming to the Dominican Republic and giving scholarships to promising musicians, many would not be able to realize their potential in the field.
"That's my motivation. There are marketing strategies that I can use to create more opportunities like that and grow the level of exposure. A lot of performers, we like to be seen. But it doesn't stop with us," she says. "You need to pass it on and do something for those coming after you. I want to support the young people who, like me, are willing to leave everything behind and follow their dreams and passions."
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