STEP was released in theaters on August 4th to rave reviews. The documentary centers around high school seniors Blessin Giraldo, Tayla Solomon, and Cori Grainger, as they juggle a major step show victory, college applications, and everyday young adult complications.
BGN sat down with Paula Dofat, Director of College Counseling at The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, and discussed her career as a counselor, getting her students ready, and what the girls mean to her.
Joi: Paula, thank you for joining us at Black Girl Nerds. I really appreciate it.
Paula: Thank you. This is very exciting.
Joi: I’m very excited too. So let’s go right into the questions!
In the film you are the Director of College Counseling for The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Can you speak a bit about your career leading up to working at the school?
Paula: So I’m the director of college counseling for 6th grade to 12th grade at The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. And the LLOB, the Lethal Ladies, are one group at our school which we absolutely adore. So leading up to this I’ve been doing college counseling in some way, shape or form for about 17 years.
I started off in Connecticut actually, at a high school when I was working for YMCA—a place at the high school—with the program director doing after-school programming. And I had students coming to me with 2.5 GPAs and below, telling [me] that they wanted to go to college but they couldn’t get any help from their guidance counselor.
So I went straight to the guidance counselor and I was like, “Hey, just checking, these students have said XYZ.” And she was like, “You know what? We are so overloaded. So it’s not that I don’t want to, there’s just not enough time in the day.” I was like, “That makes a lot of sense.”
When I heard that I said, “Okay, I’m going to do this after school club.” I had no clue what I was doing. But they were excited. I had a desire. And the more research I did, the more phone calls, and the more resources and doors that opened to me, I fell in love, and it was the happiest and best part of my day.
When I figured that out I was like, “This is exactly what I want to do.” And then I started doing some additional research. I did not want to be a guidance counselor. They are amazing, but the social and emotional end of it was just really not for me, I wanted to focus on getting them to and through college.
So long story short I had a couple other positions, and then I landed at the Young Women’s Leadership School in New York, in Queens. And I am actually a Queens native. And that was a dream come true. Best timing I’ve ever had in my life. From there I was recruited to the Baltimore Leadership School. And that’s how I got my journey.
Joi: Every counselor or advisor in education, especially on the college standpoint, they have their own style. When I watched the film I saw yours as a direct-but-loving type of style. How did you find your method when working with these girls and in this broader field?
Paula: Well, actually it’s come from my parenting style. So I have four sons and I found that when dealing young people being direct is the best way. They appreciate just the cut and dry, and being there to support them when they need a little bit more. So I found…whatever you give, that’s what you’re going to receive. So I wanted it to model for them [to] basically be a straight shooter, be transparent. Say what you mean and mean what you say. That’s how I deal with my students and that’s how I deal with my own children.
Joi: You’re obviously a college counselor, but being a college counselor who’s a Black woman, have you dealt with any difficulties when going to bat for these young Black ladies when you’re speaking to colleges and universities?
Paula: Actually generally not, and I think it’s more so because I go in there sincerely with an ideally unapologetic attitude. Every student has a right to be at a place if that is the right place for them. So I walk in with that notion. And that’s what I also try to impart to my students. And generally colleges—what people need to realize, colleges absolutely want students. I know that sounds like, “Okay, that’s a no-brainer.” No, but they do. We hear some students like, “Well, what if I don’t get accepted, and what happens if this [, etc.]?”
College is rooting for students more than families, and students and the general public now. Even to the point where a lot of times a college will see a student and they’re like, “Oh, my goodness. This student has great potential.” And they may see the students have the GPA that’s required, or maybe the test scores are not as high. I’ve had admissions counselors call me and say, “Listen, this student actually looks great. A little low on this test score. Do you think you can get the student to take it again, probably two more times? We need to see that they have some skin in the game. Let’s work with this.”
So I generally don’t have issues with colleges, because colleges are on our team. And they want students and they want to see students do well, and they actually love resilient students.
Joi: It’s nice to hear that thesecolleges and universities make sure your job is easy for you to fight for those girls, because everybody’s at a different level. But I know myself having a college adviser who…it’s very difficult, especially when you’re dealing with primary girls of color, and specifically Black girls, you want them all to succeed, you want them to all win, and they’re all at different levels. And so we want to make sure that we fight as hard as we can for them to make sure that they get the education that they deserve.
Joi: Last question. One word to describe the girls that you work with.
Paula: Generally my go-to word for them is resilience. But I think it’s more than that.
I could actually say immovable. But these girls: when I say what I mean by they’re immovable, it’s that no matter what they come up against, they’re not moved. When they sway, they may bend, but they don’t break. And that’s what I love about these girls. They are determined not to be moved out of the place that they know is the place to be and that they have the right to be at.
STEP is in theaters now.
Joi is a Marketer, sometimey writer, sarcasm enthusiast and podcaster for Black Girls Nerds. You can also find her on Twitter (@jumpedforjoi) tweeting about random stuff.