Paola Portillo '22
Challenges have taught Paola Portilla '22 that she works well under pressure "and that a lot of great people are prepared to go out of their way to help,” she says.

For First-Gen Biology Student, Chapman Support Aids an Immersive Journey Her mother’s brain tumors prompt aspirations for a career in the sciences, as Paola Portillo ‘22 thrives in a community that “always has my best interests in mind.”

Paola Portillo ‘22 had her heart set on attending Chapman University, but as a first-generation student of limited means, she wasn’t sure her goal was reachable. Working with supportive staff members in the Office of Admission, she received financial aid to bridge the gaps and launch her Chapman journey.

Still, it hasn’t been easy — in fact, Portillo chose biology as a major and medicine as a career aspiration in part because of the experience of her mother, who was diagnosed with brain tumors while she was in high school.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to help people,” says Portillo, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) student. “I saw the difference people made in caring for my mother.”

Through it all, including her mother’s ongoing health concerns, she has leaned on an encouraging community at Chapman that has provided resources whenever she needed them.

From Schmid College faculty members to Dean of Students Jerry Price, from Office of Admission staff to campus champions of Diversity and Inclusion, “everyone at Chapman has just been so supportive,” Portillo says. “From the moment I stepped on campus, I loved it. Everyone was welcoming, and you could tell they all wanted to serve their students. That has never failed — every time I go to someone, I know that person always has my best interests in mind.”

In a recent interview, Portillo shared other insights about her Chapman experience.

How did your mother’s surgery affect you?

“It was pretty difficult at first. Everything kind of happened really suddenly, and I knew I had to step up, because I have three younger siblings, and I had to take them to school and get them meals, help with homework. I learned that I work well under pressure, and that a lot of great people are prepared to go out of their way to help.”

What support have you received at Chapman?

“Early in my experience, Jim Brown, my professor in my First-Year Foundation course, put me in contact with an older student who was able to answer some academic questions, tell me about university life, suggest courses. As a first-year and first-generation student, this was all really helpful. Later, when I was at a turning point in my life, I needed help paying for the renewal of my work permit, and when I reached out to the Dean of Students Office, Chapman was able to help with that. I thought that really went above and beyond.”

How have your studies influenced your plans for a life in the sciences?

“I haven’t really figured that out yet, but I’ve definitely thought about it. I’m really interested in neuroscience, and that’s because of my mom’s brain tumors. Because of that, I joined the Brain Institute at Chapman, where we do research that goes hand in hand with neuro. That’s been an interesting and unique tool that has opened up a lot of knowledge for me. The professors here are really brilliant.”

What have you found most rewarding about your Chapman journey?

“That’s hard, because there are so many opportunities. At first, it was really difficult, because there was so much in my life, and I was commuting here. Then my freshman year I was able to join a sorority, Tri Delta, and I was able to find a lot of great people in my classes. There are so many things on campus that Chapman provides, and now I’m able to live on campus, so that has given me a unique experience. Honestly, with the opportunities that Chapman has made available, from the professors being so knowledgeable to all the people willing to make connections, it has all been amazing.”

Paola Portillo ‘22 had her heart set on attending Chapman University, but as a first-generation student of limited means, she wasn’t sure her goal was reachable. Working with supportive staff members in the Office of Admission, she received financial aid to bridge the gaps and launch her Chapman journey.


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