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Paula Dofat of ‘Step’ discusses her journey and passion for education

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Paula Dofat of ‘Step’ discusses her journey and passion for education
Paula Dofat (left) and Blessin Giraldo from the film “Step.” (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

“It is my divine call. I feel that with everything in me,” said Paula Dofat, the Director of College Counseling at The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). “I don’t have the right not to be excellent for all these girls. When I wake up, someone has entrusted a piece of their life to me. Their parents are depending on me. So, I don’t have the right. I have to get up and be 100 percent every day, whether I want to or not.”

If you go

Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “Step” opens at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge on Friday.

Dofat and the young women from BLSYW are the subjects of “Step,” the uplifting and feel-good movie of the summer. Directed by Tony Award-winning producer Amanda Lipitz (“The Humans”), the film follows Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon, three seniors on the school’s “Lethal Ladies” step team, who are part of the founding class of the charter school. All three young women are chasing their ultimate dream of winning a step championship and being accepted into college.

The film also spotlights the tough but loving Dofat, who mentors and guides them as they pursue their higher education dreams.

Dofat, who has been working in the educational field for almost 18 years, has traveled a long road to get to this place of personal and professional success. It’s a path she believes she was meant to travel. Her own educational journey was filled with challenges and bumps along the way, similar to those encountered by many of the young women featured in “Step.”

It wasn’t until she reached her 40s that Dofat earned her degrees, which include a Master of Science in nonprofit management from Northeastern University. During a recent conversation with the Banner, she was open and honest about the lack of information and guidance she received during those formative years.

With a 2.8 high school grade point average, the potential first-generation college student’s future was uncertain. Her guidance counselor wasn’t interested in helping her and suggested that she go to community college as an option. “That was my counseling,” said Dofat. Despite the lack of support, she did receive a conditional acceptance to St. John’s University, and once there did well, she recalls. “But then I started hopping around to different schools because I didn’t understand ‘fit.’”

As a serial transfer student, she began racking up student loans left and right. “I thought I was getting free money. I had no clue what that meant,” she said. “I was the best-dressed chick on campus, though — not realizing that my $100 pair of shoes would end up costing me $1,000.”

Eventually, Dofat dropped out of college, got married and had two children. In the meantime, she had to contend with “a boatload of student loans.” From that point on, she swore, “If I ever got in a position [to do so], I would never let that happen to another student.”

She considers her unconventional path of attending six different colleges — including community college, state and Ivy League schools — as a blessing in disguise. It has enabled her to relate better to her students and to understand what they’re going through financially, academically and emotionally. It took many years, but Dofat learned that higher education wasn’t just about going to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. It was about knowing herself and what she needed, and whether the school she ultimately would attend would be the right fit for her.

Now, 20 years later, armed with the knowledge and wisdom culled from her own setbacks and successes, Dofat hopes that she can impart a few lessons to young women — one of which is “Do your research.” She assigns students the task of researching community colleges, as well as state and Ivy League schools, in order “to make sure that they explore all of their options, and that they don’t miss out on something.” In her many years as an educator, Dofat has come to the conclusion that “we have a whole section of people who are trying to academically ‘Keep up with the Joneses’ and who simply want to go to these name brand schools,” as she calls them. Part of her goal is to change the young women’s mindset about these colleges and universities, and assist them in finding the school that best fits and serves their needs.

Of her own college experiences, Dofat said, “I found out that this tiny little college in Connecticut was the best place for me, but I was fighting tooth and nail to get to the Ivy League because I was trying to prove something. Ultimately, I got the best education I think that I could have gotten at the other place. I take nothing away from any school. It’s an individual success journey, and that’s what I want everyone to get, even when they watch this movie: to understand that it’s an individual success journey.”