How Paola Garcia’s Firsthand Experience Shaped Her Career at Year Up
How does work become your passion? Paola Garcia’s own cultural experiences ignited her deep desire to work in an organization like Year Up. “What first shaped my drive to learn more about diversity was being my mother’s translator as soon as I could talk,” Paola began. Today, through her positions in admissions and recruitment, Paola has continually worked to create a more inclusive environment for students and staff.
Despite being born to parents who immigrated from Uruguay to Atlanta, Paola didn’t really understand that she wasn’t white. Growing up in a predominantly white community with no other Latinos and only a handful of people who were black or African American, black or white seemed to be the only ways to identify. Then, while working in a restaurant, a derogatory remark from a customer made her realize she actually wasn’t white and drove her to learn more about diversity.
Taking a non-traditional path to college, Paola earned two degrees in her chosen fields. And once again, her first-hand experience propelled her forward. While attending a professional conference, Paola passed a frantic gentleman in the hotel lobby. When the man saw this young Latina dressed in black and white business attire, he flagged her down and said, “Oh, I need towels.” Realizing she was mistaken for a service employee, she became furious. “All he could see was what he was looking for. And I fit that profile,” remembered Paola. “I’ve fought with this stranger many times in my head and forgiven him every time, because the problem is our society, not just him.”
Paola knew she wanted to use her education and life experience to directly impact people who needed it most. When she found a job in Admissions at Year Up, she knew it was a great place to start. “Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are driving forces behind virtually everything this organization does,” said Paola.
Stretching beyond her Admissions Specialist role, Paola was promoted to Admissions Manager for the Greater Atlanta admissions pipeline. In spring 2020, she was promoted again to oversee the Southeast region’s enrollment pipeline. Along the way, she led DEI initiatives for Greater Atlanta and also put her diversity learning to work in each position she’s held. “Every single aspect of my functional role has been touched by this interest in DEI,” explained Paola.
When the coronavirus pandemic challenged Year Up to reinvent its admissions and recruitment processes, Paola led the transition to virtual recruitment for Greater Atlanta. Her team documented and rethought each step, from ensuring effective communication for prospective students to translating high-energy, in-person events into Zoom meetings. She also leaned heavily on community-based organizations for referrals, using virtual meetings to maintain connections and momentum.
With new virtual systems in place, Paola has been transitioning to her new role and exploring opportunities to expand her DEI efforts at the national level. “I recently went to our enrollment leader and said, ‘We really need a presentation that talks about unconscious bias. Oh, and by the way, I just created this entire PowerPoint deck because it’s my passion!’’’ Each cycle, Paola is also excited to work with a new group of students as a coach, another way to leverage her DEI skills.
As she nears her 40th birthday, Paola looks forward to what’s next. She plans to pursue her doctorate and sees herself at Year Up for the foreseeable future. “I go to work every day thinking what an absolute privilege it is to directly impact somebody’s life. That’s the biggest satisfaction ever,” said Paola.