Paulaska Ramirez, first-generation advocate, educator, and promoter of diversity
She's a proud Latina with more than 12 years of experience in higher ed, working with students of diverse backgrounds from low-income households.
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Paulaska Ramirez, or Paula as her mother calls her, was born and raised in Northern New Jersey, particularly Passaic, NJ. The first- generation trailblazer is transforming women of color and first-generation students’ ability to thrive in professional environments and academia.
The proud daughter of Dominican immigrants, was able to navigate life with the support of her mother, who migrated to the United States in her late 20s. Part of Ramirez’s identity is being from North Jersey because the culture in the tristate area is a little different from other regions, especially as a Latina woman and only child.
“I am [a] first everything. First in American college, professional, graduate student. So it definitely defines who I am and how I navigate the world,” Ramirez explained.
Academia holds a special place for the First Year Experience instructor and Associate Director of Educational Opportunity Fund Program (EOF) at William Paterson University (WPU) in New Jersey, which provides academic and financial support to students. A program that Ramirez was a part of during her undergraduate studies.
Paulaska is also the Founder and Executive Director of Generation Fearless. She is responsible for the vision, strategy, and efforts of the organization, which aims to empower, uplift, and help first-generation women navigate all stages of their lives.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a concentration in criminal justice from William Paterson University of New Jersey and a master’s in administrative science from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Currently, she is pursuing her Doctor of Education with a concentration in Organizational Leadership Studies at Northeastern University.
Grounded by Higher Education
After obtaining her bachelor's, her love for education lingered, promoting her to intern at Northern State Prison in North New Jersey, where she was with a vocational counselor. Part of the internship consisted in assisting inmates with Freshman Seminar, which helped rehabilitate and prepare inmates for life after prison, by providing the opportunity of starting over through education.
Eventually, Ramirez went into social service working in Essex County with kids who were experiencing behavioral and mental health challenges—doing school visits, wrap-around service, and understanding how every part of the child’s experience is important and deserves to be addressed.
She had a hard time in social service because she couldn’t take the kids home. She couldn’t save everyone.
“The reality that we have to trust the system that is broken was really hard at the time,” Ramirez explained. In the end, taking an opportunity in 2010 to distance herself from the profession working with William Paterson.
Although she was only supposed to stay at WPU for one year, she has been with the institution for twelve years, overseeing the program that once advocated for her as an undergraduate student.
As the associate director of the EOF program, she is able to serve low income students with the majority being black or brown first-generation and as a First Year Seminar instructor, tailored the course to meet diverse students’ needs.
Ramirez is clear that her purpose is to be a diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility advocate in any setting she is in, especially in higher education.
Reflecting on her experience as a woman of color and the way she connected with her curly hair. When she was younger, she couldn’t attend important events with curly hair because of how it could be perceived in a professional environment, resorting to straightening her hair for a “more polished” look.
However, a particular incident allowed her to self-reflect. She was told she looked better with straight hair, a sentiment many women of color have often heard. This allowed her to take the opportunity to educate the individual on, “what you are really saying is that my identity is unprofessional,” and hair has nothing to do with professionalism.
This is why language and education matter. Dissecting these layers of intersectionalities of women of color and negating rhetorics that affect self-image and portrayal.
“The fact that I have to think about is my hair is too puffy and you don’t, it already creates how I walk into a room,” explains Ramirez. “We [women of color] grow in this comfort.”
She further adds that people tend to minimize the importance of speaking from lived experience as being “too sensitive,” which tries to discredit black and brown women’s perspective.
Fixing the world through Generation Fearless
It is with these lived experiences that Ramirez was able to launch Generation Fearless, a nonprofit focused on educating, empowering, and supporting first-generation women to navigate all stages of their lives by providing mentorship and connecting them to resources.
“I want to have my imprint in one way, shape or form,” commented Ramirez.
She struggled with navigating professional environments, especially after getting her first offer and not understanding what was a 401k and health insurance obligations. She went back to campus and asked for help.
“The world makes you feel like you should have known that information,” she explained, a common dilemma among first-generation students who might feel like they don’t belong.
“I’m not a real Dominican and I’m not a real American,” lamented Ramirez. “[First-generation students] live in this limbo regardless of how connected we are to our cultures.”
It took her five years to build the courage to start Generation Fearless. But her mission was clear, to support women.
“We are focusing on the guilt that we carry as first-gen. The guilt that we already carry as women,” Ramirez emphasized. “Then you add being a woman of color—all these intersectionalities, who we are, how we have all these different levels of guilt and responsibility and that’s not even every woman’s experience, but that’s a lot of our experience.”
Part of the work of Generation Fearless is to help ground women to understand that even if they experience many challenges; unemployment, marriage falls apart, kids move out, they still have themselves because these things don’t define who they are, it only adds to their life. Therefore, roles are not a woman’s identity. The roles enhance an established identity.
Ramirez stresses the importance of going beyond our ancestors’ dreams. In Latinx community, certain careers are associated with socioeconomic stability like being a doctor or lawyer. Oftentimes, not giving other careers the same level of importance.
“I can save lives as an educator, no different than a nurse and a doctor can,” Ramirez explains. “That is beyond what [our families] can see. That’s why I have to be comfortable with the work that I do and be so grounded.”
Lastly, she wants Latinx students who may not be fluent in Spanish to take the time to connect with the language because they will be able to navigate to different cultures in any space. Stay clear with your vision and the purpose of the work you intend to do.