Student Success Story: Paula Overcame Adversity, Got into Harvard to Help Children Suffering from Trauma

Paula Lizarazo is a young English teacher from Colombia and one of our Studyportals Scholarship finalists. She dedicates her life to finding better, more empathetic teaching methods for children who suffer from trauma. She pursued her passion no matter what and got accepted for a Master’s in Education Studies at Harvard University.

They surely must have noticed her patience and her kindness. Surely her way with children must have caught their eye when they assigned her to work with kindergarten children. It was back in 2020; she just graduated from the Universidad Industrial de Santander and started looking for a job in education. Coming from a family of teachers, the little girl from Bucaramanga herself grew up also dreaming of becoming a teacher.

This job she found didn’t seem easy; it involved kids with developmental disorders, such as ADHD. But she saw it as a blessing.

“I never imagined I would work with kindergarten children. I guess I was assigned here because I have a personality that the little ones enjoy. They feel safe around me. And I find it easy to work with them too. They are so receptive, so in touch with their emotions! And I can connect to that.”

Paula Lizarazo Harvard International Student Success Story

Photo: Paula, at Constitution Beach, finding awe in everyday moments (Personal archive) 

As time passed and Paula spent more time in the classroom, signs became obvious: these children didn’t have an easy life at home. Many of them suffered from trauma as they lived in unstable households. So the young teacher started to explore how she could help them overcome their problems. How can she teach them in a way adapted to their emotional background?

“For some of the children, learning was difficult. But their lives weren’t easy at home either. I could sense and see warning signs in the classroom, and soon I also learned about some of their problems at home, and the things they faced. It was a delicate situation.”

This is how Paula started to read a lot about trauma informed education and came up with the idea to strengthen her students’ socio-emotional skills through video-based intervention. Paula placed human interaction at the center of her teaching methods and started spending quality time with each student, checking in with the most vulnerable ones.

It worked.

At the end of the school year, 7-year-old Sara approached her and said, “Ms. Lizarazo, I used to have anger issues, but I learned to control myself thanks to the videos you had me record. Now I am teaching my dad how to control himself.”

The transformation she witnessed in her classroom encouraged Paula to learn more, improve her methods and develop a training program for elementary educators and transform them into trauma-informed practitioners.

“I was looking for resources because one of my mentors advised me to do it. So I found out that here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, they were interested in resilience, adverse childhood experiences, and trauma-informed education.”

And this is how Harvard became part of her story.

“There are things in life you cannot teach your way out of”

In March 2022, Paula was accepted into the Human Development and Education Programme at Harvard University. She will now do her part in improving the lives of children facing adversity by doing her research with the Center on the Developing Child.

It may seem weird, but Harvard wasn’t her first option. It just seemed too… impossible. But she did it, anyway.

“Sending the application was a success in itself,” Paula says. She felt proud of herself after doing it; it gave her strength and confidence as she was also passing through an exceptionally tough time in her life. It was very difficult for her to stay focused, but, as she said before, working with kids is a blessing.

“I had my problems, but when I looked at them and started dancing and jumping with them, I felt like there was hope, that life wasn’t that bad, that there was hope, love, and beauty. Kids are innocent and happy. I felt I wasn’t alone.”

Paula Lizarazo Harvard International Student Success Story

Photo: Paula, excited after getting her Harvard ID (Personal archive) 

With their help she managed to overcome anxiety and deep pain. She understood that she needed space to cry and feel the pain.

“There are things in life you cannot teach your way out of. You must be willing to go through the worst, and it hurts less”

Her own traumatic experience encouraged Paula to invest even more into her path, to transcend her past suffering and transform it into a tool to serve her community. She managed to convince the people at Harvard by integrating her life experience with adversity with her life purpose and professional objectives. 

Harvard felt like a dream. Like "crossing into your computer’s wallpaper."

So, she got in, but the next step, getting there… well, this was just another impossible thing she had to overcome.

There are specific challenges when you want to study at one of the best universities in the world: it is also among the most expensive.

“My parents couldn’t believe it at first. Then they worried about the money. They had zero Pesos for me. They only started to enjoy my achievement when I got here (e.g., to Harvard). Now they are super proud,” Paula remembers. She is 30.000 dollars short of the approximately 90.000 that the university will cost her.

Her mom, a public school teacher, managed to get a bank loan of 5.000 dollars. The rest she plans to get by making a student loan, getting a job, and applying for funding.

“I just got a job at the library. So, I will have some money for living expenses, and I won't have to request as much from the loan. A colleague of mine told me that she was working at the library and that they are looking for people to help them with stocking and organizing books. It's like a student job, so I can work up to 20 hours per week. It's flexible and nice.”

The library where she works is none other than the famous Widener Library, home to millions of volumes from all over the world.

Paula remembers that when she was writing her Harvard application, she set up a wallpaper with one of the library’s historic, vintage rooms to inspire her.

“When I first entered this room, after I got here it was amazing. Because it has been my computer wallpaper for months. And when I entered it, I was like, «Oh, my God, I am in the wallpaper! » and I wanted to cry. I just sat at one of those tables, and I couldn't believe it. And I said to myself «I am a Harvard student»”

For Paula, Harvard feels safe, feels like a dream come true, and she enjoys every moment of her international student experience, although now and then she misses her mom’s pollo apanado.

“When I entered the School of Education, when I had my first class, when I did kayaking for the first time, walked on the bridge between Cambridge and Boston… I treasure all of these little moments because they remind me of how hard it was to get here, how much I cried, how much I worked, and everything that I had to overcome to get here.”

She is also aware of how huge her success story is for her community because it shows  people that such ambitions are not impossible and that they are a real option.

The next lines in the story of Paula’s career are yet to be written, but what she knows is that she wants to stay true to her vocation as an early childhood educator.

“Hopefully, I’ll be a manager in this area one day. Maybe, at one point, a human rights advocate at the UN. But for now, I’m here, and I’ll do my best here.”

Paula Lizarazo Harvard International Student Success Story Photo: Saying goodbye to family (Personal archive) 

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