From Humble Beginnings to Doctor of Physical Therapy: A BUILD PODER Success Story

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By Melissa Simon


Paulo Sitagata (right) at his commencement ceremony for the Class of 2021 at Northwestern University
Paulo Sitagata (center) at his commencement ceremony for the
Class of 2021 at Northwestern University. ​​​​​Photo courtesy Paulo Sitagata.


For Paulo Sitagata, earning an advanced degree used to seem unattainable.  But through his perseverance and drive, he has gone on to become the first Cal State University Northridge (CSUN) BUILD PODER alumni to attain a doctoral degree. 

BUILD PODER is an undergraduate research training program funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of a set of experimental grants provided to 10 campuses nationwide with the goal of attracting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds in the sciences by preparing them for success in their future careers.

Sitagata entered the CSUN BUILD PODER program in 2015 as part of its first student cohort. After graduating from CSUN with a B.S. in kinesiology, he went on to earn a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree from Northwestern University. 


Paulo Sitagata in his graduation regalia
Paulo Sitagata in his graduation regalia


Sitagata’s circumstances during adolescence were difficult. After moving across the country from Florida to California when he was 13 with his great aunt and uncle, Sitagata could not enroll in high school due to a paperwork issue, so his guardians unofficially homeschooled him (they later adopted him and became his parents).  When he turned 18, he decided to pursue college and attended adult education classes to earn his GED. Then, he enrolled in community college, where he joined the BUILD PODER pipeline program and later transferred to CSUN. 

Sitagata said he is grateful to have been part of the BUILD PODER program and feels like the NIH invested in his success.

“I'm proud that I can represent all the thousands of dollars that's been put into me and the time and effort of the mentors throughout (the program),” Sitagata said.

He added that if given the chance to speak with NIH representatives, he would tell them it’s important to continue funding programs that support diversity and equity in science.

When one thinks of a scientist, they tend to envision a white person in a lab coat, said Sitagata, who was recently featured on the NIH’s social media platforms as part of the “Face of Science” social media campaign in May 2021.

“For someone like myself who's Black and Samoan, grew up very poor (and) without a lot of resources (or) knowledge, BUILD gave me…resources to fund college,” he said.


NIH repost of #FaceOfScience campaign promo featuring Paulo Sitagata
NIH repost of #FaceOfScience campaign promo featuring Paulo Sitagata


BUILD also made him aware of his options to go to graduate school away from his home in California, and that he could participate in research at one of the nation’s top universities with brilliant professors. Sitagata said his story is just one example of what can happen when someone with humble beginnings is given an opportunity.

“I'm just extremely proud and grateful that my life and my experiences academically (and) professionally have led to where it is now and…that I can represent that it's possible for someone who comes from such small beginnings…to now being a doctor,” he said. “It's mind-blowing really thinking about it all.”

BUILD didn’t just provide an opportunity for Sitagata to reach his career goals. The program also taught him how to approach social justice issues in a professional manner and enact real change.

During the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, Sitagata said he and other Black students in his cohort at Northwestern felt like the institution wasn’t acknowledging what was happening. He and his classmates wrote a letter to their department to share their feelings about the current climate and to describe a plan of action to improve things for students of color, including having forums to discuss issues and holding diversity trainings. The proposals were well-received and have the potential to impact curriculum, he said.

“Regardless of how many of you there are, that’s like a prime example of diversity (and) how it can impact the field, how it was able to impact our department,” Sitagata said. “Going forward, I hope that what we did was able to make things better for incoming students of color.”

He added that things are already looking more positive, as more affinity groups have been created for Asian Pacific Islanders, the LatinX community, and Black students.

His advice to students going through BUILD is,

“Be yourself, you’re plenty smart enough,” Sitagata said. “Everyone who's in BUILD works extremely hard…you're here for a reason and you're going to do great.”


The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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