Today he is hailed as one of the best players in the history of UMass Boston's men's basketball program. But, just a few years ago, Alberto "Amigo" Paniagua was heading down the wrong path.
"I never saw myself being in college," said Paniagua, 26, a Mattapan native who dropped out of school during his senior year at Dorchester High. "I took the path many misguided youth take and decided it was cooler to be doing my own thing."
Paniagua took a job at the Boston University food court. After three years, he decided to go back to school.
"It wasn't easy, but I had a lot of support to help me move forward," said Paniagua. "I had my family, friends and coaches [at UMass] letting me know that I was wasting my talent and potential. So I took my GED and I went for it."
Now, after four successful years at UMass Boston, Paniagua will soon be the first in his family to graduate from college.
"With the exception of my aunt who graduated from Boston University, the closest anyone in my family had gotten was a semester in a community college," said Paniagua. "My mom and step-dad are so proud of me. And I have a little brother and sister who look up to me I wanted them to see me do the right thing - to stay in school. Now everyone is just so excited."
On Feb. 4, the senior forward was named player of the week for the second time by the Little East Conference (LEC). Currently ranked 15th among all players in NCAA Division III, Paniagua says he hopes to be a shining example for the youth back home. In his college career, Paniagua, a 6'3 forward, is the only UMass Boston player to earn 1,616 points, 740 rebounds, 275 assists, 169 steals and 69 blocks.
Paniagua strives to secure a career in basketball, a sport he says he has loved all his life.
"I grew up watching it ever since I was a baby in the Dominican Republic-- watching and imitating," said Paniagua, who moved to the U.S. at the age of twelve. "It wasn't until I got to Dorchester High was I finally part of a team (Dorchester Bears) and I loved it.
"It was an amazing experience. The coaches prepared me for many challenges on and off the court and I learned a lot about being on a team. Now I will definitely pursue a career in basketball and I will be forever grateful for whatever God sends my way."
Paniagua, who recently dropped his exercise health science major for a degree in criminal justice and minor in Spanish, says he is working towards a future in community service.
"There are too many kids in that [Dorchester/ Mattapan] that only want to hang out and be cool. They have dismissed school and accepted limited futures. I want to be a cop or a counselor and help out with those youth. And being able to communicate in more than one language means I can reach out to a wider community. I want to let them know that school is the road."
Charlie Titus, who has coached Paniagua at UMass-Boston, says Amigo has been one of the team's leading players.
"He has had terrific basketball career, but more than that, he's had just as an amazing academic career," said Titus. "He understands the game and he is our lead scorer, but Paniagua's main purpose in coming here was his education. Basketball was a just a bonus."