Resident guidance counselor Paula Dofat guides courageous STEP stars Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon closer to their collegiate dreams in the riveting documentary STEP. A first-generation college graduate herself, Dofat knows all too well the pressure to break barriers when the odds are stacked against you.
“I was a first-generation [college] student who received very little guidance or support from my guidance counselor because I wasn’t at the top of my graduating class. My parents could not help me; they did not know what to do because they had never been to college. As a result, [I] ended up being a serial transfer student, racked up enormous student debt, dropped out of college and then finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in my 40s,” Paula Dofat recalls. “Realizing all of this could have been avoided with the right support system, it became my mission to make sure as many students as possible did not experience what I went through.”
Dofat’s passion for helping young women realize their dreams and surpass their goals was very apparent in her real life portrayal in STEP. In the film, Dofat showcases her grit and tenacity in true form as she sets out to not only ensure that each student at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW) graduates but is also accepted into college. The Queens, New York, native shares her zest for achieving the impossible and tells how a chance encounter with STEP director Amanda Lipitz led her to the Lethal Ladies step team and BLSYW.
How did you become the head counselor at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women?
I’ve been doing college counseling for 17 years. I was at the Young Women’s Leadership School in New York and our school (BLYSW) is modeled after those schools. I met Amanda seven years ago while she was doing a short [film] on first generation students and I was in that short. I was speaking about undocumented dream students. I had a dream student who was the valedictorian and that’s how I met her. I found out her mom had a school and I was recruited from that school to Baltimore to create the college counseling department. I was getting the same results [100 percent college acceptance] so I came to Baltimore to duplicate it. It reminds me of my own hometown South Jamaica, Queens. Hollis Queens.
Why was it so important for you to fight for the members of the Lethal Ladies? What did you see in them?
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t fighting for the Lethal Ladies. I was fighting for every student in that graduating class. I made a commitment that every single girl would be accepted into college, so whatever needed to be done, as long as it was legal and moral, that’s what I was going to do. It’s what I’m supposed to do. I think when you have a position, you need to take it seriously and everything you said you were going to commit to doing and everything in that job description, you need to try to fulfill that. If that’s not what you want to do then you shouldn’t have that job.
There is a scene in the movie where you have a breakdown trying to get Blessin past a roadblock and into college. Have you ever had a moment like that before where you thought weren’t going to obtain your goal of getting a young woman into college?
No, that was the first time in my career. It’s poignant because what people don’t realize is that we were less than 30 days from graduation. [Blessin] was my last girl and this was the first graduating class. I had made the commitment and I just didn’t know what we were going to do. We were literally on our last resort. At that time, I was emotionally spent, not just from her but from the whole graduating class. I was emotionally tired and drained from trying to figure out what every girl needed because it’s not just about having them accepted into college. It was about the right fit, being in the right place and having the right opportunities that weren’t going to cost them an arm and a leg or leave them seriously in debt. It’s a lot of pressure.
What do you want the audience to take away from seeing STEP in theaters?
I’m hoping this [movie] will create a movement. I want people to feel a call to action knowing that you need to be doing something. This world isn’t just about us. We have to stop the me, me, me and the my and mine. They need to do something that’s going to help someone else and help a young person on their journey. Those that are already doing that, I’m hoping they will be refreshed and renewed in what they’re doing. Sometimes we forget why we signed up to be educators or why we need to be community activists or whatever it is because we get tired. So, I’m hoping it will be a spark for some and a renewal for others.
Watch the lovely Lethal Ladies of BLSYW step into their futures and your heart in STEP, now playing in theaters. To live the “step life,” visit https://www.impactpartnersfilm.com/films/step or follow the movement on Twitter @stepthemovie.