#AlumniSpotlight We caught up with Paola Sánchez Valdez (’18) to hear about her work on the recently published book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience by Dr. Brené Brown, in community activism, and graduate school. As a Postgraduate Researcher for the Brené Brown Education and Research Group, Sánchez Valdez works on developing a strategy to bring Dare to Lead, a training to develop brave leaders, to first generation college students. Since her time at UVA, Sánchez Valdez has let one mission guide her: to inform, help heal, empower and advocate for her communities.

While at UVA, Sánchez Valdez majored in Youth & Social Innovation (YSI) and minored in Global Studies in Education. She’s the Co-Founder of two CIO’s on grounds, UndocUVA (formally DREAMers on Grounds) and PLUMAS (Political Latinx for Movement & Action in Society). Sánchez Valdez was also involved with the Young Women Leaders Program, the Latinx Student Alliance (LSA), the Virginia Student Power Network, the Peer Mentoring Program (PMP) mentor, and was a 2017-2018 Lawn Resident. When asked about her favorite memory on grounds, the #HoosForDREAMers Occupation at the Amphitheater, where hundreds of students and community members showed up in the rain to stand in solidarity with those impacted by the DACA repeal in 2017, was the one that stood out. 

Upon graduating, Sánchez Valdez worked as a community organizer for the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers where she provided direct outreach and legal rights education to isolated seasonal (im)migrant farmworkers and other low-wage workers facing workplace violence, deplorable working and living conditions, wage theft, and labor trafficking. She recently completed a Master of Science in Social Work from Columbia University. 

Sánchez Valdez first got involved with Dr. Brené Brown’s work during the pandemic, while juggling being a full-time policy graduate student, a community organizer, and an executive assistant, all the while facing family deaths from COVID-19. Facing burnout and grief, she decided to take a break from policy-related work and pursued another interest of hers: emotion research. What started as a Tweet asking Dr. Brené Brown for tips, turned into a research position after a series of meetings. Recently published in November of 2021, Atlas of the Heart explores eighty-seven of the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human, providing a framework for cultivating meaningful connection. 

Looking ahead, Sánchez Valdez plans to continue making Dr. Brené Brown’s work accessible to underrepresented communities and sees herself jumping back into academia, either attending law school or getting a PhD in social work. 



What advice would you offer for those looking to get involved in community activism?

I suggest reaching out to a local organization of your interest and volunteering. If you’re in Charlottesville, I suggest volunteering at the Legal Aid Justice Center due to their incredible state-wide campaigns and programs.  


What advice would you offer for others looking to pursue advanced degrees (graduate school broadly and masters in social work specifically)?

My experience in graduate school was very similar to that of other Latinx, first-generation students. I often felt self-doubt, loneliness, and frustration in an institution not built for me, especially an Ivy League entrenched with so much classism and racism. My advice to anyone interested in pursuing grad school is to find a program that aligns with your values and that has demonstrated significant institutional support for minority students. Talk to current students about their experience or reach out to student organizations that align with your interests. Ask the hard questions and advocate for yourself. This is your future (and your money); the ball is in your court! 

Last tip: Once accepted into a program, you CAN and SHOULD negotiate your financial aid package if you need more assistance.  


What have you learned from Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience? What do you hope for people to take away from the book? 

What I’ve learned from this book is the importance of emotional granularity (recognizing/labeling our emotions). Adding language to our emotions is linked to better emotion regulation and psychosocial well-being. Major Takeaway: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein


Who is someone that inspired you and why?

My parents for their courage, perseverance, and unconditional love.