Paula Garcia-Salazar ‘15: “College is the Place Where You Have the Most Freedom”

Paula Garcia-Salazar ‘15

Born in Ecuador but raised in the US since the age of 7, Paula Garcia-Salazar by chance ended up as a student in Loudoun County, Virginia – one of the richest counties in the entire United States. Despite facing challenges as an undocumented immigrant in Virginia, she had the opportunity to attend excellent public schools. Her motivation to advocate for marginalized communities stemmed from this experience. Garcia-Salazar found her way to CCNY through a search for free education in New York City. While initially undeclared, her aspiration to pursue a law degree led to a path into Political Science. Garcia-Salazar is currently a Civil Rights Attorney — Legal Fellow/Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society, Special Litigation Unit. She credits the Colin Powell School’s Honors Program in Legal Studies (then the Skadden Arps Program) which played a pivotal role in her career development.

Where are you from and what is your background story? Please share your details from the period before you arrived at CCNY.

I was born in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to the United States when I was 7 years old. I initially moved to Brooklyn, where my father lived, but eventually my mom and I settled in Loudoun County, Virginia, because we had relatives there. Through a stroke of luck, that happened to be one of the richest counties in the U.S., and had an excellent public school system. Even though we were low income, I benefited greatly from attending these public schools. Throughout this time, my mother and I were both undocumented, and I went to school in a district that was not very diverse. This experience was both very formative, and very uncomfortable for me; and really motivated me to get out of my town and also to care about the rights of marginalized people, having gone through the experience myself.

What brought you to CCNY and to the Colin Powell School?

I was in high school during the first DREAMER movement, and prior to DACA and the slight expansion of rights for undocumented immigrants that came to several states after. At the time, you needed a social security number to attend college in Virginia. This meant that I had to leave the state to attend college. Thankfully, my father still lived in New York (Elmhurst, Queens) where I would visit him often in high school. I loved New York, and wanted to come to school here even aside from my immigration status, but my family could not afford a private education. I googled "free school nyc" and lo and behold, CUNY popped up. I applied to the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter originally, but I received a call from (I believe) Robin Villa who convinced me to go to CCNY instead. I gratefully accepted, and ended up at CCNY as an undeclared major, but eventually declared Political Science. At the time, the school was not called Colin Powell yet! But I knew I wanted to eventually pursue law, and eventually the political science department became part of the Colin Powell School.

What is your passion or purpose behind pursuing what you did at City College?

I grew up undocumented and low-income in the richest county in the United States. Though we wouldn’t have qualified for SNAP or public benefits because of our lack of status, my mom was lucky enough to secure a job that placed us at an income threshold slightly above the federal poverty line. She pulled that off with a small amount of generational privilege that she had accumulated and cashed in on as soon as she came to the U.S.: her parents sent her to a school that had an English curriculum, and she has been a fluent English speaker since she was young. The butterfly effect that her education had on mine resulted in me having a privileged position compared to a lot of my undocumented peers. I went to an excellent public high school and my good grades there allowed me to go to a public college for free. When it came time to choose a career, I knew that I had to enter the public interest world and pay it forward for the immense luck I’d had, and I felt my strongest skills naturally lent themselves to pursuing a career in the law.

Briefly, how has your career unfolded? How did City College and/or the Colin Powell School help you to get where you are in your career?

City College — specifically the (then called Skadden) pre-law program — was instrumental in my career. Skadden primed me for a career in law. As a first-generation college grad and first generation lawyer, I had never even met a lawyer before attending City College. The stipend that they provided was instrumental in supporting me through school since I was ineligible for financial aid as an undocumented student. And the Honors center, specifically Jennifer Lutton, was extremely helpful for helping me secure post-graduation employment. My first post graduate job was as a Community Fellow in the Immigrant Justice Corps, where I served the immigrant community in the Bronx and helped hundreds of immigrants apply for affirmative immigration benefits and helped guide and refer those with criminal or deportation issues to attorneys.

Initially, I thought my calling was immigration, but I eventually found my way to the world of criminal justice at my second post-graduate job at the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York affiliate of the ACLU (which, by the way, came to my attention from a panel that one of their attorneys attended at City College!). Being a formerly undocumented immigrant has always made me very sensitive to surveillance, tracking, and policing. Even before I had developed an interest in the subject matter professionally, I was personally drawn to these issues from growing up as an undocumented immigrant fearing that government surveillance could lead to devastating consequences for me and my family. I followed this passion and was lucky to be admitted to Yale Law School in 2019, where I worked on these issues as well as delved into public defense related issues as well. Also at YLS, I helped found our own law school pipeline program, which I was excited to do knowing how beneficial that had been for me. Since graduating from YLS in 2022, I gratefully accepted a two-year position as a Skadden Fellow in the Special Litigation Unit of the Legal Aid Society's Criminal Defense Practice, where I work as a civil rights attorney. My work mostly focuses on due process, fourth amendment, and privacy rights litigation and other forms of criminal justice reform impact litigation and law reform work.

Do you have any significant memories or accomplishments from your career or time at City College / Colin Powell School that you would like to share?

I was very proud to have received one of the awards for my thesis, the Stanley Feingold Award, and speak at the CCNY Alumni Gala to accept the award. I was also very grateful to have been identified as a candidate for valedictorian although it went to somebody else. But I am overall most grateful for the amazing learning experiences with my professors, which really exposed me to amazing radical thinking — especially John Krinsky and Grisela Rodriguez, and professors that also exposed me to some less-radical but crucial learning that gave me a solid foundation for my current work, of which there are too many to name, and for the amazing life-long friendships I made at CCNY!

Do you have any advice you could give to current or future students?

College is the place where you have the most freedom, intellectually, to learn whatever you want — lean into taking classes that attract you and help you find your passion!

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