doctor of health sciences for immigrants

UB Alumna Reflects on her Journey from Undocumented Immigrant to Doctor of Health Sciences

“I remember thinking to myself there has to be a better way.”- Dr. Paula Garay.

When Paula was five years old, her mother left Chile for the United States, leaving her four children in the care of family members. Her mother spent the next seven years working multiple jobs to support her family back in Chile in the hopes that she would be able to bring her children to the United States. Paula’s mother went for more than three years without taking a day off from work. “I didn’t see my mother for seven years. That’s part of my trauma. I’ve had a tug of war with myself about it, especially now that I’ve had my own three babies.”

Paula came to the U.S. to be with her mother when she was 12. She arrived as an undocumented immigrant faced with mapping out life and school in the United States while getting to know her mother again. Dr. Garay recently spoke with University of Bridgeport, detailing the challenges she overcame to earn three degrees from University of Bridgeport.

Today, Dr. Garay runs the emme coalition, a non-profit organization through OPTIMUS Health Care in Bridgeport, CT. The emme coalition serves undocumented, underinsured, and uninsured women and girls, helping them to overcome the same obstacles Paula faced as a child.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college.”

When she came to the United States at 12 years old, Paula spoke no English. Within six months, she was speaking English, and by her second year in Trumbull schools, she no longer needed ESL services. By high school, she was fluent in two languages and dreamed of going to college. “I had good grades and a great SAT score, but because I didn’t have any papers, I wasn’t allowed to go to college,” says Garay. “I started exploring the idea of moving out of the country. I almost went to China because I was desperate to go to college.”

After graduating high school, Paula couldn’t go to college right away. Instead, she began working multiple jobs, paying out of pocket for community college classes to further her education.

Shortly after graduating high school, Paula found herself at risk of being deported. “ICE was looking for me to send me back to Chile. I ended up finding this amazing lawyer who helped me get my papers, so I didn’t get deported.” Paula had to pay for all her lawyer’s fees by herself, putting off her dream of going to college to secure her status in the United States.

“As soon as I got my papers, I enrolled in UB and started my bachelor’s degree.”

Going to UB

By the time Paula arrived on the UB campus as a student for the first time, she was 23 years old and working three jobs. “I was attracted to the IDEAL program at UB.” At the time, the IDEAL program helped adult learners earn their bachelor’s degree with accelerated and online courses. “I was working at night as a CNA, and I had two jobs during the day,” said Paula.

While studying for her bachelor’s degree, Paula met her husband, who was studying sociology at the time. William Garay graduated with his bachelor’s degree from University of Bridgeport and is now a police Sergeant with the Stamford police department.

A few years after earning her bachelor’s degree in social services, Paula went back to earn her MBA at University of Bridgeport. “I love the fact that I have all my degrees from UB. I think that’s very unique. I fell in love with UB because the professors are just amazing. I knew when I was doing my bachelor’s degree that I wanted to stay.” Paula knew early on that she wanted to work with people like herself. She earned her MBA and immediately began working toward her Doctor of Health Sciences degree — all part of her plan to reach her career goals.

“I didn’t want to be a medical doctor or work in healthcare in that sense. To make a bigger difference, I wanted to work behind the scenes in healthcare policy and healthcare administration. I needed my MBA to lead people, and the classes I took when I did my doctorate taught me things I use daily in my career today.”

Paula wanted to help people who are going through similar circumstances she faced as a child. Now, she is doing just that.

Launching the emme coalition

Dr. Garay was working in the medical field when she learned that OPTIMUS Health Care was looking for a director to launch a program for women and girls. Knowing she wanted to help immigrants since she first arrived in the United States, Dr. Garay saw this as a perfect opportunity to bring her ideas to Bridgeport.

Dr. Garay launched and is now leading the emme coalition at OPTIMUS Health Care. She runs a program that helps women and girls in Bridgeport overcome the same barriers she faced as a young undocumented immigrant. The emme coalition provides financial help, access to resources, counseling services, and life-planning assistance to women living in Bridgeport, CT.

“Most of these women and girls are victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. 100% of them have experienced trauma,” said Garay. Patients come to the emme coalition through referrals from local organizations, hospitals, OPTIMUS Health Care, and the local community connections Garay has built throughout her career. The emme coalition has a team of community health workers, program coordinators, and social workers who screen clients and collect data on the types of services and resources they need.

To gauge where these women are in their trauma, the emme coalition provides an array of assessments. “We see a lot of generational trauma and generational abuse. Many of these women are moms, and we’re trying to help them break those cycles,” said Dr. Garay.

All the services the emme coalition offers to these women and girls are free of charge. The emme coalition is funded through a grant from the Fairfield County Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls. This past summer, FCCF helped Dr. Garay secure funds to send ten Bridgeport girls to Camp Hope. Camp Hope is put on by the Center for Family Justice. Children attending Camp Hope experience summer activities and undergo intensive group and individual therapy for the abuse they’ve endured. She’s hoping to send 10 more girls next summer.

Dr. Garay wouldn’t be where she is today, helping improve the lives of people born in other countries, without the sacrifice her mother made when Paula was a child.

“We have more than made up for it.”

Today, Paula, her mother, and her siblings are all U.S. citizens. Her mother is still living in the Trumbull, CT house that Paula first lived in when she arrived in the U.S. at 12. Thanks to her mother’s enormous sacrifice, her siblings all had the opportunity to attend college. “If we had stayed in Chile, I don’t think any of us would have gone to college.”

As hard as it was being away from her mother for seven years, Paula says it was all worth it. “I don’t know exactly the situation she was in. She felt she needed to provide for us; that was the only way. It’s not something we talk about often, but I know it weighs heavily on her.”

Paula shares her experiences because she wants people to feel confident in their ability to succeed, even when life throws so many challenges at them. “As hard as it was, I never felt like I couldn’t do it. Even when I was at risk of being deported.”

After facing many barriers to her education, and with the support and encouragement from the UB faculty, Paula earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees while working full-time and raising three young children with her husband, William. “If I can do it, anyone else can. I’m not special. I’m just hardworking.”

Immigrating to the United States Today

Through her work, Dr. Garay hopes to help people understand the dire circumstances that bring undocumented immigrants to the United States. Paula’s mother traveled thousands of miles, leaving her children for seven years to achieve a better life for her family. “The anger and animosity toward undocumented immigrants is unnecessary. They are not taking any resources because there is nothing at the government level for them. That’s why programs like emme have to exist.”

The emme coalition helps women of Bridgeport create life plans. They’ve seen many women grow and succeed because people like Paula and her team are by their side.

The connection to UB doesn’t end there. OPTIMUS Health Care sends many patients to the Fones School of Dental Hygiene clinic and the School of Chiropractic for healthcare services. Many of the patients that OPTIMUS Health Care and the emme coalition serve are uninsured or underinsured and need access to affordable services — UB’s healthcare students help fill that gap for members of the community.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 40 million people living in the United States today were born in another country. Almost every country on earth is represented among the U.S. immigrant population. Connecticut, New York, Boston, and the surrounding areas are home to more than 6 million immigrants who work, study, and live in our communities (Source).

“That was always part of the plan. I wanted to come to Bridgeport and give back. I wanted to be the person I needed when I was a child.” -Dr. Paula Garay, MBA, DHSc

At University of Bridgeport, our students come together from more than 80 countries worldwide, bringing global perspectives together onto a diverse and inclusive campus. Students from around the world come to UB to reach their personal and career goals. A degree in Health Sciences can set you up with a rewarding career, helping our most underserved populations access the resources and tools they need for success.

Reach out to us to learn more about how UB can help you reach your goals. Let’s start something great together!