Women in Entertainment Mentorship Grad: "My Perception of Success Changed"

Courtesy of Subject
Paola Franco (left) with Jennifer Salke in May

Paola Franco, who was mentored by NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke during her time in THR and Big Brothers Big Sisters' Mentoring Program, writes about the "miracle" of being granted a full-ride scholarship to Loyola Marymount University.

This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have always told me, "As an undocumented student, you have to work twice as hard to be successful." Like words engraved in stone, this phrase has resonated with me.

In 2003, my parents and I were separated by the Mexico/U.S. border. They made sacrifices and left me behind in Mexico to migrate to this country and pursue the American dream. A year later, after working day and night in California, they finally had saved enough money to have me brought to them. When they did, I was an 8-year-old who had to learn a new language and mature at a faster pace than most. Although it was difficult to adjust to a new country and way of life, I had supportive parents who instilled in me that perseverance and education are the key.

It was because of them and their emphasis on education that I perfected my accent and rose to the top of my class. Even though my parents only had a middle-school education, I was raised with the mind-set of pursuing college. The pressure of succeeding was augmented when my brother was born, shortly after I arrived in the U.S. I now served as a role model and had to set a good example for him to follow, even though I was only 8.

Despite my commitment, college education seemed unattainable. I knew my parents were not able to fund it, and due to my illegal status in this country, I was not able to receive government financial aid. Each door leading me to success seemed to be closing, one by one. Although these circumstances were discouraging and could have served as barriers to college, they only made me more determined.

Leading up to my junior year in high school, I joined the Los Angeles Police Department Cadet Youth Program. During that time, when asked what my career goals were, I would answer without hesitation "law enforcement." In fact, I could recite my 10-year plan: attend college, major in criminology and join the narcotics division of the LAPD. Living in Inglewood for so long, law enforcement seemed like the only way to become a positive influence in my community.

I upheld this idea until I was admitted into the Women in Entertainment Mentoring Program. It was then that my perception of success changed, and I was presented with new ways to later impact my community. Little did I know that by joining the program, I would embark on the most rewarding journey of my life.

I was honored to find out that NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke would be my mentor. I can still recall my first visit to her office. Prior to that, I had never been exposed to a professional setting, and I was in awe of her and where she worked. I tried to take everything in, from the culture of the company to the confidence with which she carried herself. I observed how everyone straightened their posture and adjusted their seats as she walked into a room — an impact that I had only ever seen in response to males in movies. From then on, visiting her at her office every two weeks became the highlight of my year. Each time I was with her, I felt like a child who was visiting Disneyland for the first time. Even now, three years later, I still feel the same way.

As time progressed and our relationship blossomed, it only became more evident how invested Jennifer was in my future. After months of attending table reads and reading scripts, I came to realize that the entertainment industry, which had seemed so foreign to me, had slowly become all I could think about. My career aspirations had taken a 180-degree turn, and I couldn't have been any happier.

Jennifer took me on college visits and hired a tutor to guide me with my college applications. I tried to remain optimistic, but deep inside I knew it would take a miracle for me to attend college. I was beginning to lose hope when I, along with 12 other girls, attended the Mentoring Program's campus day at Loyola Marymount University. It was announced that one girl would receive a four-year, full-ride scholarship. I looked around to find 12 other hopeful girls looking as shocked as I did. Our jaws dropped.

I submitted my application and, before I knew it, the morning of the Women in Entertainment break­fast — when the scholarship recipient would be revealed — had arrived. The whole morning, Jennifer was by my side, expressing words of encouragement. Moments before the winner was announced, she held my hand and said, "No matter what happens, everything is going to be fine." I squeezed her hand, probably cutting off her blood circulation. This was the most nerve-racking moment of my life. And then I heard, "And the scholarship winner is: Paola Franco." Hearing someone say my name had never evoked so much emotion before. Tears of joy immediately ran down my face as my emotions brimmed over.

This was my miracle. Suddenly my life flashed before my eyes, and I saw the 8-year-old me, who came to this country with the dream of succeeding, jumping with joy.

Franco is a sophomore at LMU, majoring in communication studies.

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