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

Colette Greenstein | 8/10/2017, 6 a.m.
Paula Dofat, director of college counseling at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, is one of the subjects of ...
Paula Dofat (left) and Blessin Giraldo from the film “Step.” 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.