As Paola Berrios (B.S. ’21) unpacked her bags for her first semester at Georgia State in fall 2017, she was sure of one thing: She’d major in neuroscience then pursue a career in medicine to help treat women, like her mother, battling health problems.
Though she was confident about the field of study she’d declared, Berrios grew anxious when she thought about settling into a new city surrounded by new people. Her first big hurdle would be New Student Orientation, which was weighing on her.
A few minutes before her onboarding session began, something serendipitous happened. Berrios found herself in an effortless conversation with another freshman who immediately put her at ease. She figured that on such a large campus, she’d never see that new pal, Alexi, again. But after a few run-ins in their dorm’s dining hall, the two became daily lunch buddies. Four years later, they’re seniors — and best friends.
Berrios was pleasantly surprised to find that during her pivotal freshman year, most of her new relationships were just as easily cultivated.
“Everyone was so accepting and wanted to talk,” she said.
From there, with people like Alexi in her corner, things started to fall into place for Berrios.
During her sophomore year, another friend sat her down for a frank conversation.
“She said, ‘When you talk about the medical field, you really sound like you know what you’re talking about. You’ve done the work,’” Berrios recalled. “‘But when you talk about politics and law, you light up, and you speak with so much passion and confidence.’”
It was all Berrios needed to hear, and the timing was just right.
Inspired by the ever-changing political climate, she changed her neuroscience focus to a major in psychology and a minor in political science. Then she enrolled in a career-defining course, Civil Liberties and Rights, taught by professor Robert Howard.
“When I took that class, I realized this is what I wanted to do and what I needed to do,” she said. “It made me a lot more aware of the social progress we’ve made over the past 50-plus years and more excited to be a part of future progress. We talked about a lot of lawyers and organizations that consisted of ordinary people, and it really made me feel like I could be a part of something someday.”
Berrios has remained close with Howard over the years. She recently shared one of her proudest moments with him — the news she’d been accepted to the Emory University School of Law, where she’ll pursue the Public Interest curriculum track next fall.
Her goal is to become a champion for marginalized communities, eventually working at a nonprofit organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center or UnidosUS.
“I want to advocate for those who don’t have a voice,” Berrios explained. “I come from a diverse background. I’m Puerto Rican. My family back home is Black and brown. It would be hypocritical of me to ignore my culture and not advocate for people.”
That’s where she says her psychology major will come into play. Through her classes, she’s gained a greater understanding of people and how they think and feel, which she believes will make her a better, more well-rounded lawyer.
It’s fitting, considering the significant role her personal relationships have played in helping her find herself and rethink her future.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to not have anything figured out,” Berrios said. “You have time. Find your passion and the path that makes you happy.”
It’s a critical piece of advice she shares with prospective students as an Honors College Ambassador and a campus tour guide for the Welcome Center. And it’s something she’ll remind herself of as she begins her next adventure at Emory.