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This summer, Samantha Cortes (EDUC ’20) packed her bags and moved from her hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, to Las Vegas, Nevada, where she serves as a second-grade teacher through the Teach for America program. Although her senior year at the University of Pittsburgh didn’t end the way she anticipated due to COVID-19, she credits the Panthers Forward program for helping her prepare for her future in more ways than one.

About Panthers Forward

Full-time students on the Pittsburgh campus who are set to graduate in 2021 and received federal student loans to fund their senior year are eligible to apply for Panthers Forward.

Upon graduation, Panthers Forward participants will receive up to $5,000 in direct federal student loan relief. The only condition is a voluntary one: that they pay it forward.

Learn more about the program on the Panthers Forward website and apply online by Sept. 20, 2020.

She talked to Pittwire about her experience in the program, which provides eligible seniors with up to $5,000 toward their federal student loan balance upon graduation, along with mentorship opportunities and programming throughout the academic year.

Thinking about applying for this year’s Panthers Forward class? Applications are due Sept. 20. Apply online.

What made you apply to Pitt?

Originally, I wanted to go into the medical field. Growing up, some members of my family had health issues and were treated at UPMC. My father had a lifesaving surgery at UPMC Shadyside Hospital and my sister had surgery at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. I remember driving into the city and saying, “I want to have a hand in this someday.”

At first, I wanted to study molecular biology, but my path eventually changed, and I majored in applied developmental psychology in the School of Education. I got to volunteer at Children’s, too. So basically, I came for UPMC and stayed for everything else.

Why did you apply for Panthers Forward?

I took an extra year at Pitt, so a lot of my friends had the opportunity of being involved in Panthers Forward before I was a senior. I saw how amazing the opportunity was, obviously in respect to student loan forgiveness but also how they were able to meet people from different walks of life in their graduating class. We are all intermixed with people in our majors, but since Pitt is a big school, there are so many people that you don’t know. I thought it was cool that Panthers Forward did so much good in helping with the student loan crisis but also encouraging us to meet friends and make new connections.

I was blown away by the mentorship aspect of the program because I love networking. As soon as I saw mentoring was involved, I knew it was something I wanted, especially as I was preparing to enter the “real world.”

So, did you find the mentors you were looking for?

At the kick-off event for Panthers Forward I connected with two alumni, Shannon Finley (A&S ’11, EDUC ’12G) and Darren Myzak (A&S ’09, EDUC ’10G), who were graduates of the School of Education. I’ve stayed in touch with them ever since. They helped me with my interviews for Teach for America and get ready for teaching as a whole, since they are both educators, themselves. They have been such a resource. We’d meet up for dinner and text all the time.


Two people embrace each other in front of a "Panthers Forward" sign

What was your experience in the program like once COVID-19 hit?

As a graduating senior and a first-generation college student, there was obviously a lot that was difficult for me from March onward, but I always felt so connected to Panthers Forward. My two mentors were the first people to reach out to me and ask, “Hey, are you OK?” I thought the program as a whole did a great job in keeping us in the loop and keeping us connected, but in a different format.

Aside from meeting new people, what have been some highlights of the year?

I really enjoyed the symposium events and the “life lessons” we learned. There was one in the beginning of winter that was about philanthropy, and how you can still be involved in a cause without just throwing money at something. I was really interested in this because I was in a service sorority at Pitt.

There was a virtual event at the end of the year that was all about finances. As a first- generation college student, getting a feel for what student loans look like after graduation and what I need to prepare for was super helpful. There was a special guest, Gene Natali, who wrote a book called “The Missing Semester,” which talks about making financial decisions after graduation. Everyone in Panthers Forward got a copy of the book, too.

What would you say to seniors who might be considering applying to Panthers Forward?

There is so much about your senior year that is not what you expect it to be. This year especially, the social aspect is taking a big hit. Even though you might not get the “traditional” experience you’d hope for, Panthers Forward is a great way to build connections—and even though it’s remote, that doesn’t mean those connections aren’t real. You’ll leave this year feeling part of the Pitt family no matter where you go. I know that the team behind Panthers Forward will put on a good year for the seniors, whether or not it happens in person.

How do you plan to pay it forward?

I plan on being a mentor for the Panthers Forward program next year. I definitely have a habit for taking on way too much at once, so I decided to just focus on teaching for my first year out of school.