Paola always dreamed of attending UVA. Growing up in Lynchburg, she knew she had a top-tier public university right in her backyard – and, since she has always been close to her parents, she loved the idea of attending school in her home state.
“I came to the U.S. from Ecuador when I was two years old with my family on a tourist visa, and after that we became undocumented,” she said, “and I was undocumented for more than 15 years. Education is the main reason my parents came to this country – for better educational opportunities for my brother and me. UVA was always my dream school because of that. I knew how important education was to my parents, and I knew they wanted me to work really hard in school and go to a really good institution.”
At first, Paola wasn’t sure what she wanted to study – but with her outgoing personality and passion for advocacy, she knew she wanted to pursue a career where she could make a difference in the lives of young Latinx students like herself.
“I always knew I wanted to do something that pertained to youth advocacy,” she said, “because I wanted to support other students and other kids that went through all that I had gone through.”
Then, Paola enrolled in a Curry School course called “Issues Facing Adolescent Girls.” As part of her coursework, Paola served as a mentor with the Young Women Leaders Program, a community-based mentoring program that pairs UVA undergraduate women with middle school girls from the Charlottesville area. Almost immediately, she knew she had found her path.
“My experience with YWLP [Young Women Leaders Program] was incredible,” she said. “I was matched with a little sister who was Latinx like me, and her family was also undocumented, and we connected instantly and had a really great bond. I was just like, ‘This is what I want to do!’ I want to make sure that kids who go through these experiences feel supported.”
From her first year as a big sister, Paola went on to become a YWLP facilitator and then an intern, developing a sister site in Ecuador. The experience aligns with her other work on campus to support and advocate for undocumented students and their families – like starting the student organization DREAMers on Grounds. For Paola, the choice to study YSI was simple. “It just made sense,” she said.