Nancy Agosto: A Princeton-Trenton Story

It’s Friday morning and Nancy Agosto has just joined our Zoom. We’d been planning to meet for weeks, but delays pushed our meeting date back again and again. Unfazed, Agosto responded to each apology-laden email with grace and patience, so that when we finally did meet this brisk yet sun-drenched morning, she was exactly as expected — kind, generous, filled with passion for her work, and brimming with excitement to (finally) talk about the projects and collaborations that bring her joy.

Agosto is the Program Coordinator for Trenton Arts at Princeton, or TAP, a collaboration between the Department of Music, Lewis Center for the Arts, and Pace Center for Civic Engagement that aims to build and nurture a creative bridge between the Princeton and Trenton communities through arts engagement activities. Every Saturday, youth from Trenton’s middle and high schools descend upon the Lewis Arts Complex for three hours of arts and community, led and facilitated by Agosto, her colleague and TAP’s program manager Lou Chen, the various ensemble directors, and a number of Princeton University student volunteers. 

As Program Coordinator, Agosto is in charge of ensuring that the Saturday Morning Arts program, or SMArts, flows smoothly. On any given day, that might mean jumping on a call with or sending emails to parents, the program’s teacher partners (arts educators at the Trenton schools), the program directors, or food and transportation partners. It’s a lot of systems management, but it’s an invaluable resource for which the SMArts directors, including Solon Snider Sway, Director of Trenton Youth Singers, have immense gratitude. “In my experience leading music groups, eighty percent of the work is often reminding people to show up when they need to show up, communicating with parents, all of these other logistical matters. But because of the work that Lou and Nancy have done in establishing and overseeing systems, we can really focus on making community and making art with the students.”

Nancy Agosto grew up in Trenton, New Jersey. Her parents, originally from Guatemala, immigrated to the United States in the ’90s in pursuit of the American Dream. When their daughter approached schooling age, they enrolled her in the Trenton public school system, first Washington Elementary School, then Grace A. Dunn Middle School, and then Trenton Central High School. Agosto was a diligent student with a particular love for music, but without opportunities to develop that passion in elementary school, her talents went untapped. Then, in middle school, she got her first real opportunity: she joined the Grace A. Dunn Middle School Band with some friends. In high school, under the guidance of music educator Ted Plunkett, she started learning the trumpet (her second choice, after French horn) and continued developing her skills for making music in community. 

Like so many other Trenton students, Agosto benefitted from the robust arts leadership of her middle and high schools to unlock a budding passion. She also benefited from being selected as a Scholar in the highly-selective Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), which aims to ensure college preparedness for students from socioeconomic groups that are under-represented in major universities. The opportunities paid off for Agosto, who just last year, in 2022, graduated from Muhlenberg College with a B.A. in art history and Latin American & Caribbean studies and a minor in studio art — a pivot from her intended major of music, “with computer science on the side, in case I failed!” Her positive experiences sparked a passion for and commitment to ensuring equitable access to education, particularly in the arts. 

“I have this whole philosophy that if everyone was just able to make art and was able to find community from it, a lot more people would be doing it, whether as a career or just for fun.”

It was during Agosto’s college years that she returned to PUPP and to Princeton’s campus, teaching art and literature for two summers and creating virtual college tours for the Scholars. She also conducted artistic and cultural programming with the guidance of PUPP director Dr. Jason Klugman, following her passion for arts accessibility. And it was through PUPP and through Dr. Klugman that Agosto heard about TAP’s search for a Program Coordinator. “I remembered Lou [Chen] from my junior year of high school. He had started showing up for band practice, and we were all like ‘who is this guy from Princeton?’”

“When Dr. Klugman told me about the position, I was very excited to be a part of something that had grown so much and that could continue to grow into something even bigger.”

She got the job.

During Agosto’s first week of rehearsal, she was shocked by the program’s growth since Chen had visited her band rehearsals all those years ago. Not only was the program structure incredibly efficient and organized, but skillswise too, it had seemed that the bar for excellence had risen exponentially among the students.

“From that first rehearsal, I saw that everyone really knew what they were doing. The Orchestra students had just gotten a new piece and they were sight reading, like, really, really well! In the Dance rehearsal space the students were already doing choreography. In Theater they were talking about improvisation. And the Singers were already halfway through the song that they had just started learning that morning. And I’m just watching this, like, how is everyone moving so quickly?”

Today, in addition to facilitating SMArts, Agosto also leads TAP’s College Advising program, meeting with students via Zoom and in person for 1-on-1s to provide the sort of support and clarity into the often daunting college application process that she herself once benefitted from.

“I never thought I would get to college. I knew I wanted to, but I never knew if I could. Being on my college graduation stage was a really proud moment. And then six months after graduating I ended up getting this job, where I not only get to champion accessibility in the arts but also guide students through their college application process. It’s something that’s really important to me and that I really wanted to do.”

In her role, Agosto also performs outreach with various Trenton-area organizations, like GTCAN (Greater Trenton College Access Network), a collaborative effort to strengthen college-access and workforce development programming, and Futuro, a youth mentoring program for first- and second-generation immigrant students from the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF). Inspired by Dr. Klugman’s continued mentorship and guidance, she reaches out to these community-first organizations and more to let them know that TAP is here to provide support and partnership. 

“TAP is a collaborative effort — it’s a give and take — and so when I go out and talk to people I’m always thinking about how I can better support everyone and create that sense of community. Building that network of trust has been crucial.”

Agosto’s short tenure thus far with TAP has been impressive. “In just six months,” TAP Program Manager Lou Chen shared, “Nancy has made her presence deeply felt. Already, she’s helped us significantly expand our programming, not only increasing Trenton student enrollment in Saturday Morning Arts but also developing new partnerships across the Trenton community.” 

It’s a sentiment Dr. Klugman from PUPP echoes strongly: “Nancy is a wonderful scholar. She’s dedicated, artistic, collaborative, steady. When Nancy served as PUPP’s first and only ‘Art + Literature’ Teaching Assistant during the pandemic, she was amazing! We were all trying to figure out how to maximize engagement via Zoom, and Nancy gave critical additional support to both classes. Nancy is eager to take what she’s learned from her time as a PUPP Scholar along with our current tools, tips, and collected wisdom, in order to help TAP students on their journey to college and beyond.” 

Beyond TAP, Agosto is also excited for her next steps in life. She just moved into her first apartment, a sunny, two-bedroom apartment in Burlington, New Jersey. She enjoys visiting coffee shops, thrift stores, and other local shops in the area, and she often goes on walks in the park across from her apartment, a perk she’s grateful to have so close to home. She’s gotten into hiking too, with Pennsylvania’s Wissahickon Trail being among her favorites. 

On any given day, you might catch Agosto listening to her current song obsession, a Jacob Collier and Lizzy McAlpine remix, or studying her long-time favorite work of Spanish Baroque painting, a Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez painting of the painter’s enslaved assistant Juan de Pareja, “one of the first depictions you see of a person of color made in such a painterly and regal fashion.” 

She’s also finally returning to drawing herself and recently participated in Wintersession courses to indulge that passion. “I have the free time, so I might as well just keep learning!”

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