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Grad Lea Papa

One Generation Won the Immigration Lottery, a Second Earned a Scholarship to Yale

Lea Papa remembers being 4-years-old and translating for her parents at Customs at O’Hare International Airport - the last step in their journey to start a new life in the United States. 

The oldest of two daughters, Papa, 17, still translates for her parents, Toni and Sonila, and feels an obligation and need to be there for them. So you can forgive her if there’s a bit of hesitancy in her voice when she’s asked if she’s excited about attending Yale University in Connecticut next year. 

“I’m very grateful, I’m happy (but) I was worried,” she said. “I’m from an immigrant family, and I’m the oldest child. My whole life my role has been helping my family,” she said.

That’s why her first choice schools were nearby – Northwestern just north of Chicago and the University of Chicago.

Papa received the offer to attend Yale through a program for high-achieving students from low-income families. The program matches applicants to one of 40 colleges ranked by preference by the student.

The news came suddenly on a Wednesday when she was checking her email for information about bloodwork she needed to have done.

“Instead of the confirmation, I saw an email that said ‘your status had been updated.’ I wasn’t expecting anything, I wasn’t expecting to be matched at all. I guess I didn’t want to be let down. 

I knew a lot of people don’t match. I was not expecting myself to be one of the people that did. It said: ‘Congratulations you match.’”

Her mother, Sonila, received a similar life-changing letter in 2008. 

Sonila and her husband, Toni Papa lived through the turmoil in Eastern Europe that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union. As a teen, rather than be conscripted into the military, Toni fled to Italy where he started a business. Years later, when the stability returned to Albania, so did he, and he started a family. It was Sonila that got them to the United States by putting her name in the immigration lottery every year after Lea was born. Her name was pulled when Lea was 4, which started Lea’s role as the translator for her family. 

Given the experiences of her parents, getting a good education was important.

“I always felt pressure to do very well in school,” she said. “They thought it was very important for me to get a college education and make the most of the opportunities that I have.”