When Allaya Hagigal, 23, graduates Columbia University, she will be a first-generation university graduate in her family. She will have earned a double bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and sociology. As she puts it, “Education means everything to me.”
“I just want to be someone both I, my siblings and my mom [Aneida Fitzgerald] can be proud of,” said Hagigal who aspires to become a doctor with a focus on stem cell therapy and genetic engineering to help people with hereditary diseases and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
It’s personal for her. A year ago, she had a relative diagnosed with leukemia and wonders if she could have helped her, had she been a practicing clinician.
“Basically, if I was a doctor, maybe I could have helped her get the therapy to give her extra time and ease the pain she was feeling. For me, it’s personal. Many people are fighting and trying to live.”
The allure of medicine goes back to her teen years.
“I always liked science. When I was about 13, I was looking up careers, and I saw that Freeport had a stem cell facility, and I emailed them my résumé. They emailed me back and invited me to Freeport for a tour of the facility.”
Hagigal, in her mind, went on the tour with teenage optimism that she would be hired out of high school. What it did, she said, was further cemented her love of science and the field.
She transferred from University of The Bahamas, which she attended tuition-free as a Public Schools Scholarship Programme (PSSP) scholar, to Columbia during the pandemic. The Ivy League school accepted her 66 credits and Hagigal began studies virtually at the research university. She now has 70 credits and hopes to be among the class of 2025 graduates.
Hagigal also has another love – acting – and has further plans to pursue acting studies at London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art (LAMDA). She took a “leap of faith” last year and applied to the prestigious drama school. After three rounds of auditions, the school sent her an initial offer before the acceptance letters were even released.
“I was ecstatic,” she said. “I decided to study theater and professional acting because of my extreme love for the craft.”
Her two worlds collided when she applied to both LAMDA and Columbia University “on a whim”.
Hagigal received admission from Columbia first and accepted. Even though she had applied, she had not expected to go, even though she had the grades. About a month later, she found out she had gotten into LAMDA as well. She said Columbia told her she could not defer. The solution she settled on was to attend Columbia part time and virtually while enrolled at LAMDA.
She had to pay a $9,000 deposit to get into LAMDA which she did not have, but which was covered 100 percent by an anonymous donor.
“I cried, honestly,” said Hagigal. “I was blown away. They [donor] refuses to say who they are, so that I can be thankful. But for doing what they did, it shows they generally care.”
Over the summer, Hagigal brought the mysterious world of Agatha Christie to the Bahamian stage as The Guild debuted its first theater production, the stage play “The Mousetrap” – set in 1950s Nassau, featuring Hagigal, among other actors, with the goal for a portion of the proceeds from the two productions staged earmarked to go toward Hagigal’s dream to purse a bachelor’s degree in theater and professional acting at LAMDA.
“Though our first production had a successful turnout and lots of buzz, the proceeds were unable to cover full cost of my education in London.”
It costs $24,000 a year to attend LAMDA. The academy only accepts between 15 to 25 people a year.
Hagigal failed to raise the required funds by the September 11 deadline.
Because the scholarship document required for her visa application was not received in time, the conservatory withdrew her acceptance for the fall 2022 semester.
“I was and still am gutted by their decision,” she said. “I’ve been pretty upset because I was unable to go to school.”
After much pleading on her part, she said LAMDA agreed to defer her acceptance to fall 2023.
Hagigal said she feels she can’t let her donor down.
“Regardless of my future in the performing arts, I will complete my studies at both the London Academy and Columbia University, culminating in three bachelor’s degrees, before I obtain a master’s degree in genetics to pursue genetic engineering and stem cell research.”
While she currently attends Columbia part time and virtually, Hagigal is also holding down a full-time job to save money to pursue all of her educational goals.
“I’m actually using every cent of my monthly salary to pay for Columbia,” she said.
“I like science and I know I want to become a doctor and work in genetics, but I have been doing acting for so long, it’s given me so much peace in my life.”
Hagigal began acting at age six as a way to cope with her dad’s [Andrew Hagigal] passing.
“My first role was an understudy for one of my mentors, Patrice Francis’ production of ‘An Unusual Sacrifice’, I believe it was. I enjoyed putting on accents and playing the role. It was a much-needed distraction and brought me solace.”
Hagigal also started The Guild in mid-January 2022. The Guild is a Bahamian artist society focused on grooming new talent and creating collaborative productions between young artists. She started The Guild at her mother’s suggestion because they saw a void in the industry for young talent to create and garner investment for their creative projects.
She said as an artist, regardless of her love for the craft, she still has to learn and read to grow to become her best self.