DUNWOODY, Ga.—Call it grace under pressure. Paula Gil was scheduled to give a presentation during the Perimeter College Honors undergraduate research showcase at the same time that she needed to work her shift at a local restaurant.

With just a few customers in the background—and a virtual audience watching—Gil improvised by setting up her laptop on the restaurant bar. The engineering student then flawlessly launched into her research presentation about how Alzheimer’s disease affects the Latinx community. She placed second in the showcase.

Gil’s ability to balance her work and maintain a 3.9 GPA are just two reasons she has been named one of 440 national semifinalists for the 2022 Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.

Her professors say it’s her natural ability in the sciences, sheer “hustle” and motivation to do well that make her shine.

“I moved here to the U.S. from Colombia with my mom looking for a better education,” Gil said of coming to the United States in 2017.

“In Colombia, it’s a hard situation—college isn’t available unless you are in the elite.”

As a young girl, Gil dreamed of becoming a neurosurgeon. Her father had suffered devastating head injuries and doctors put him in an induced coma while his brain healed. His recovery inspired her passion to study neuroscience, she said. Eventually, her interest moved to biomedical engineering.

“I want to learn the skills to help people better their lives, especially those people who have brain damage,” she said.

“I came here (to Perimeter College) thinking I was going to be in biology but switched to engineering. I love building stuff and I love math—I love hard situations that will test my limits.”

Gil enrolled in Perimeter College’s Regents Engineering Pathway program.

Although she has several scholarships, she often works 14-hour shifts in a local restaurant on weekends to earn money for tuition. During the week, when she’s not in class, Gil is either studying in the library, working in the physics lab or in astronomy and physics professor Dr. Jay Dunn’s office asking lots of questions.  Gil says Dunn is her mentor and guide.

“She is extremely motivated, one of the most motivated students I’ve seen,” Dunn said.

“Paula, to use a term from my basketball days, shows a lot of hustle while learning.”

Dunn added that Gil’s drive to do well earned her the Student of the Semester award in his physics lecture class.

When Gil graduated from Dunwoody High in 2020, she interviewed with Harvard University, her dream school.  But, she says she didn’t have the prerequisites that Harvard required, so .she turned to Perimeter College.

“Perimeter was my best choice financially, and it’s got a good reputation. It’s frankly the best choice I ever made,” she said.

At Perimeter, Gil is co-chair of internal events for the Women in STEM Experience club, active in the SPACE club and president of the Dunwoody Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society.

She also was the 2021 recipient of the Perimeter College STAR “GRIT” award, which celebrates top-performing students.

An Honors College student, Gil still has a few credits left to take before she graduates in the fall.

Beyond Perimeter, she hopes to continue her education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University or Georgia Tech.

“The JKC scholarship would open opportunities for me to access the level of education that I always dreamt about,” Gil said.

The Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer scholarship winners will be announced sometime in May.

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