GS International Student Overcomes Autoimmune Disease and Pursues Education in U.S.

Paola Cruz, raised in a small town in the Philippines by her grandmother, moved to New York City on her own at 19. After battling a crippling autoimmune disease and working various odd jobs to support herself, Cruz enrolled at La Guardia Community College. Never having dreamt about attending an Ivy League university as a first-generation, low-income student (FGLI), Cruz was proud to be admitted to GS and awarded a Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS) Scholarship. She began her first semester in Fall 2018, and has since become an advocate for other FGLI students like herself and focused on her studies in medicine, literature, and society. 

August 28, 2020

When Paola Cruz was young, both of her parents left the Philippines in search of job opportunities in the United States, leaving her and her three siblings behind to be raised by her grandmother. Her grandmother, or ‘Nanay’ as their family calls her, took up dressmaking to support the family. Though she had excitedly enrolled in college at age 17, her family’s financial situation eventually took a turn for the worse, and Cruz made the decision to put her education on hold to take a position as a customer service agent to help make ends meet.

Things soon took another difficult turn, and Cruz began to experience the beginnings of a chronic disease—forcing her to stop working. At 19, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, or toxic diffuse goiter, an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid gland. Over the course of three years, Cruz spent much of her time in and out of the hospital, suffering from a myriad of the disease’s symptoms.

It wasn’t until she was able to emigrate to New York City in 2012 that Cruz began to make strides toward remission from Graves. With the will to get better, her doctor’s help, and a number of resources that she now had access to living in the U.S, she decided to pursue a healthier lifestyle.

“I knew the chances of remission were low, but it was possible.” said Cruz. “Now, I'm almost seven years in remission from Graves’. As clichéd as it sounds, it took developing Graves’ for me to value my health. I reclaimed my life."

While managing her health, Cruz also sought out services and programs that could help her settle into her new life in the U.S. and even prepare to return to college. She had very little knowledge of how the job market worked in the U.S., so she enrolled in a business training program exclusively for underserved women to aid them in professional development, business communications, and office technology at the Grace Institute. Through her involvement in their workshops, Cruz landed her first job.

For a few years, she took on various odd jobs including nannying, assisting at a mailroom, and completing administrative duties at a financial firm. She was able to set aside some money so that she could return to college—a promise she had made to herself and her Nanay. 

"My grandmother is the strongest person I know, and she’s the main inspiration for everything I do. She was never supposed to fill my parents' roles, but she did just that, simultaneously raising four kids and dressmaking to make ends meet. She doesn’t ask for much from me, but at the time where I was working a lot, every single call with her would consist of reminders that I would go back to college. It was what I wanted for myself as well, but I guess I was a little scared to start over again, and that’s why it took me a while,” said Cruz.

Paola Cruz and her grandmother on Columbia University campus.

Finding her own courage, and with support from her grandmother, in 2016, Cruz began pursuing her Associate’s degree at LaGuardia Community College (LaGCC). To aid her on her path to an associate’s degree, Cruz was accepted into CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP), an academic program that helps students stay on track for graduation by providing a range of financial, academic, and personal support.

“Studying at an Ivy League school never once crossed my mind until I was at LaGCC. There are so many things that define my background—coming from a low-income family, being a first-generation student. I consider myself to be a nontraditional student, so the probability of someone like me studying at an elite university is almost non-existent,” said Cruz. 

Nonetheless, while enrolled at LaGCC, Cruz continued to work hard, excelling in her coursework and never missing a class. She became a staff writer at the school newspaper, advocating for students of color and students with disabilities on campus and was invited to become a part of the honors program. All-the-while, Cruz maintained a 45-hour per-week day job. 

“Through ASAP, I learned that some of the graduates of the program ended up going to elite schools like Cornell, Columbia, and Stanford. I began to think that maybe I could also do it,” said Cruz. “But there was always the lingering thought about whether I could afford it even if I did make it to Columbia. I put the latter thought aside and continued to apply.”

In 2018, Cruz was admitted to GS and she was awarded a Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS) Scholarship. She began classes at Columbia that fall.

Currently, Cruz is entering her third year at Columbia and is studying medicine, literature, and society, with a concentration in computer science. As a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student, she was aware of the unique challenges students in similar situations face when navigating higher education. Since enrolling at GS, Cruz has become an advocate for underprivileged communities, working with organizations that champion FGLI students. She is the campus director for Project Access, a tech-enabled mentorship that helps students from underprivileged and nontraditional backgrounds from around the world get into top universities. 

"The opportunity that GS has given me inspired me to help other students and give back to the community," said Cruz.

Paola Cruz (center) pictured with Young Invincibles (YI) group.

Outside of her studies and involvement at Columbia, she is also one of the Young Invincibles (YI) Northeast Regional Board members, helping to address inequalities in higher education, healthcare, and workforce. Her recent work included the fight for restoring the funds for CUNY ASAP that support many marginalized and low-income students. Through YI and support from the NYC Council and many other organizations, the CUNY ASAP $34.3 million budget was restored.

"I wouldn't be at Columbia at all, if it weren't for the PALS scholarship. I come from a close-knit family, and I was the head of that family's household, so the fact that I'm the only member of the family that goes to college at the moment is already a privilege,” said Cruz.

While finishing her degree at Columbia, Cruz hopes to continue to explore and learn about the nexus between neuroscience and technology. She believes there is a promising way towards substantial discoveries in neuroscience research, including a technological foundation for future therapeutic approaches. She hopes to pursue a masters in neuroscience post-graduation.