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Music as a Path Out of Poverty

Against all odds, doctoral student Dafne Guevara created Panama’s first flute festival to inspire others to achieve.

Arts and Culture  |  Nov 14, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
woman with flute

Dafne Guevara, a doctoral student in UNLV's School of Music, organized the first flute festival in her native Panama. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

The UNLV Graduate College offers a number of merit-based scholarships and fellowships. The application deadline for the 2018-19 awards is Dec. 1. This story by Ashley Jagodzinski, a graduate assistant in the college, shows how one student used her summer fellowship funds.

When Dafne Guevara took the stage for her flute convocation on Sept. 13,  she had to stand on a pedestal to reach the microphone. Despite her petite stature, Guevara’s accomplishments are anything but small.

With ingenuity, charm, and the help of a Summer Doctoral Research Fellowship from the UNLV Graduate College, the School of Music doctoral student organized and directed the first annual Panamanian Flute Festival in the summer of 2017.

Guevara was born and raised in El Chorrillo, Panama, so she knows firsthand how life-changing art can be for citizens who have endured widespread violence and despair. She calls Panama a “modern medieval civilization” because of its extreme wealth disparity, but Guevara believes that music can be a balm for the nation’s suffering.

“They are losing hope, but music is a powerful tool,” she says.

Guevara was the youngest of 17 children, many of whom were seduced by the allure of violence and money in the face of overwhelming poverty.

“We had nothing,” she says.

At 6 years old, she discovered a talent for music when her mother enrolled her in a music program to keep her off the streets. Despite the pessimism and discouragement of an elementary school teacher who told her that she would “never get out, never make anything of [herself],” Guevara excelled.

After graduation, she won a Fulbright scholarship and made her way to North Carolina to study flute performance. She earned her master’s degree but says she “wasn’t ready to go back to Panama,” so she enrolled in the doctoral program at UNLV.

While studying, teaching, and tutoring here, Guevara realized that she wanted to give back to her home country. She organized the first-ever flute festival at the University of Panama, which has extremely limited funding for music education. Planning an international festival from 4,000 miles away was challenging, Guevara says, but “I knew I had a responsibility. It’s not something I’m doing for myself,” she says.

Guevara first had to establish a tax-deductible organization — Asociación Panameña de Flautistas, or APAFLUT — so that her festival could recruit sponsors and raise funds via student recitals.

She then reached out to mentors at UNLV and around the world and applied for scholarships and grants to help fund the festival. She won a Summer Doctoral Research Fellowship from the Graduate College, which provided the majority of funding for the project.

In total, Guevara gathered 67 students from six countries, as well as 17 artists and instructors. She used her fellowship money to pay for her instructors’ plane tickets and hotel rooms. And she recruited sponsors for her students, many of whom were unable to contribute to their tuition. She wanted to show these students that with enough “courage and concentration,” success is possible.

“I wanted the whole music community to see that they can do it,” she says. “If you set your mind to something, you can do it.”

Guevara is in the process of establishing the first Panamanian flute choir, and she hopes to one day have a physical office space for APAFLUT. Though she plans on continuing the flute festival, her experience as a child in Panama has taught her that children need creative outlets all year long to help them cope with the crime and poverty that surrounds them. Guevara knows that one week per summer is not enough.

“I want to keep kids busy for the whole year,” she says. “These programs combat [their surroundings].”

Guevara hopes to start flute festivals all over the world to give students a chance to share in this special experience and hone their skills with talented professionals. But first, she will finish with her doctoral music degree. With only one semester left, she is busy teaching classes at UNLV and studying for her qualifying exams. When asked if she feels nervous, she is unphased.

“I will pass. I know I will,” she says.

Maybe it is that kind of confidence that makes Guevara’s story so compelling. Guevara’s advisor Jennifer Grim, who participated in the festival, encouraged the audience at Guevara’s convocation to chase their dreams with confidence, even when they seem overwhelming or impossible.

“You can all do what Dafne did. Let this inspire you,” she said.