Laura de Matos Leal

Neither of her parents graduated from college--rather, they both graduated from high school around the age of 22. Their lack of higher education, though, only pushed them harder to provide their children with exceptional educational opportunities. As a result, Laura de Matos Leal not only attends one of the best high schools in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but she has developed an insurmountable passion for education, leadership, and learning.

Colégio Santo Agostinho is a Catholic school and follows the religion’s traditions, but instead of feeling stifled by it, Laura was able to quickly develop her skills for thinking outside of the box. Her religion teacher would bring up religiously taboo subjects for class discussion, and Laura realized that she was not going to be limited by the ideals her school followed.

“Having to deal with the Catholic rules and the Catholic traditions it was always a big challenge for me because we were always trying to change the school, and I think the school has changed me a lot, but I have also changed the school a lot and trying to get them to see beyond the Catholic rules and the Catholic stereotypes,” Laura said.

This drive led Laura to have leadership roles at the school such as being class representative since she was in sixth grade, joining Model United Nations, and taking part in a pilot program in which Colégio Santo Agostinho partnered with a Canadian high school. She was selected among 24 other students to join the program during her sophomore and junior year.

“It was completely outside of our comfort zone,” Laura said. “We would have classes like media studies, environmental science, leadership, theater, world issues. It was really challenging, other students would leave at 12:30 and we would leave at 5:30pm, at the same time as it was challenging it really made me grow a lot.”

Part of the reason she took on such a difficult educational opportunity was due to having the foresight that education is both a powerful tool and tremendous privilege. Both Laura and her sister wanted to show their parents that their efforts presented them with limitless opportunities.

“It was very meaningful to me because since my parents did not have the same educational opportunities as me and my sister had,” Laura said. “The fact that I was learning something new and challenging myself in school was really meaningful because I knew I was doing it not only for myself but for them to be proud and see that their hard work and effort went to something good.”

With the added goal of going to college in the United States, Laura knew this would be an excellent opportunity for growth as well.

“They put all their investment in our education, and I knew that taking on this other challenge would help me too,” Laura said. “I always had in mind I wanted to study abroad in the US, so taking this challenge of both high schools at the same time I thought would be an opportunity to improve my english and have a new experience.”

Her opportunities from there exploded, including a LALA bootcamp as a participant and then as a coach, and then a summer at the Wake Forest Debate & Public Advocacy Institute on scholarship. From there she started My First Vote to encourage young adults from Brazil to participate in the elections, which is optional when you are 16 and 17 years old but becomes mandatory at 18, and the results were far beyond what Laura was expecting.

“Even though I have my own political beliefs, no matter who they voted for, the fact they were being a part of politics and having their voices heard was very meaningful to me and it is when I noticed that my future goals were 100% to making a political impact on my country,” Laura said.

It has led to her conviction to study abroad and get the best education possible through resources that are not available in Brazil and then return home to have a role in public policy.

Before that journey begins, though, she is excited to attend the LALA Academy because she says every time she left a LALA bootcamp she left “wanting more” and is thrilled about getting the opportunity to delve deep into the things she is most interested in for three months, and continuing her prosperous educational journey.

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