HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – Due to several unresolved learning impairments and mental health issues, a college applicant’s first attempt at college was unsuccessful, but after a seven-year break they were ready to try again.

Savana Paciulli, 29, rejoined HCC’s STEM Scholars Program, which helped decide her career direction.

Her 1st college attempt

She decided to ease herself into college for her first time by signing up for two classes within the first semester. These classes consisted of her favorite subjects of math and photography. “I thought if I did that there was no way I was gonna mess it up,” she said.  

Paciulli was diagnosed young with dyslexia, ADHD, and other disorders, but she rejected the diagnoses in order to blend in with her peers and avoid the stigma. As a result, education was difficult. She experienced anxiety during her time in college. “It was so bad I used to drive all the way to campus and just sit there,” expressed Paciulli. “I couldn’t get out of my car.” 

She then ended up having to drop both classes she was in .”I was stubborn and unwilling to admit that I needed accommodations,” explained Paciulli. “I was completely unsuccessful. It was a very quick academic withdrawal.” 

Her 2nd college attempt

When she decided to start over after seven years of being away from the college environment, she saw success.

The Springfield resident graduated from Holyoke Community College with her associate degree in math and received a 4.0 GPA. She was also named the class valedictorian on June 4.

“That’s what I came here for,” Paciulli said earlier this summer, “to get my degree and prove to myself that I could do it. For other people to validate that for me has been a healing experience.” 

What changes she made

Before rejoining college again, she made some transformative changes for herself. For instance, she embraced her nature as a neuro-divergent person.

She ultimately received aid from the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission and obtained Social Security Administration disability benefits. This decision helped to stabilize her life, along with her four-year-old son Colton.

“I had struggles to overcome,” she said. “When you’re not treating mental illness or you’re going undiagnosed for something, other behaviors creep up. For a while I was just lost, floating around. I didn’t have a clear path. It wasn’t until I decided to address those underlying issues and really reset and reevaluate my life that my recovery journey began.”  

Paciulli enrolled at HCC in 2019 and was accepted into the college’s National Science Foundation STEM Scholars Program, which offers financial aid to students enrolled in STEM disciplines as well as mentoring, research, community service, and internship opportunities.

Paciulli was motivated by her mother Melissa Paciulli, director of HCC’s STEM Starter Academy. Additionally, she requested modifications in the classroom from OSDDS, the HCC Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services.

“HCC was completely different than the other educational experiences I have had,” said Paciulli. “I felt supported, encouraged. I got great advice. There are teams of people here that try to help you and want to see you succeed, and it’s genuine. They’re at a community college to serve the community.” 

Choosing her next direction

Paciulli knew she wanted to study in math at HCC, but she wasn’t sure what that would entail. Her trajectory was shaped by the STEM Scholars program.

“I’ve always had an aptitude for it,” she said. “I did know that math was going to be a good foundation whichever direction I went. It is kind of like the grandmother of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).” 

Paciulli co-founded the HCC Neurodiversity Club and worked as the head STEM research intern while attending HCC. She also served on the Student Senate, was inducted into two national honor societies, including Phi Theta Kappa and the National Society of Leadership and Success, and organized STEM exploration events with local high schools and community organizations like Girls Inc. and the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club.

The young mother and class valedictorian of 2022 will begin studying data science at Smith College in September. Paciulli sees herself starting her own data science company, that will bring together freelance data scientists who would not feel pressured by large corporations to create algorithms that generate predetermined results. 

“That’s my end goal,” she said, “to create a space for people in the industry to work on stuff that matters.”