First-Generation American Driven to Give Back to Her Community

By Lisa Intrabartola, Robin Lally and Christina Lynn | Rutgers Today, November 7, 2023

Some students need time to settle into college before deciding on a major and career path.

Not Larissa De Paula.

“I’ve had my answer since I was 9. I want to be an immigration lawyer,” said the Rutgers-New Brunswick Honors College sophomore who is working toward a dual major in criminal justice and political science with a minor in Latina and Caribbean studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.

A first-generation American and the first in her family to attend college, De Paula’s hyper-focus stems from a sense of obligation to give back to her family and the Brazilian community that raised her outside of Boston. Growing up, she heard harrowing stories from friends who nearly lost their lives on their way to seek asylum in the United States.

“I was born here, so I have the opportunity to help people who were not,” said the 19-year-old who is also fluent in Portuguese and speaks some Spanish. “What really motivated me to go into immigration law was the anti-immigration propaganda online after President Trump was elected in 2016. People have this disconnect, but people don’t just leave their homes for no reason.”

De Paula said her mother, who emigrated from Brazil at 20, dreamed of becoming a reporter, but her family could not afford to send her to college. Instead, the single mother supported her two daughters working as a house cleaner and stressed the importance of higher education as early as elementary school.

“My mom was really supportive of me going to college,” she said. “She wasn’t able to help me as much as she wanted, but she was always cheering me on. She’s really proud of me getting here.”

De Paula said a language barrier and lack of experience prevented her mom from being able to assist her with the complex process of applying to college and for financial aid. Instead, De Paula turned to her high school guidance counselors and mentors at Rutgers through Thrive Student Support Services, a program for first-generation students, for support.

But it’s the grit her mom instilled in her to keep pushing ahead that De Paula relies on every day at as a first-generation Rutgers student, she said.

“I’m not inherently smart. I just work really hard,” said De Paula, who is among the first Posse Scholar cohort at Rutgers – a program for students who demonstrate extraordinary leadership skills – and the recipient of a full merit scholarship. “Something I learned over the years is say, ‘Yes,’ even if you’re scared. I have a more determined mindset because I don’t have much on the line to lose. It keeps me motivated.”

FULL SOURCE: Rutgers Today | Celebrating the Success of Our First-Generation Students