A decade has passed since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti, killing roughly 250,000 people and injuring another 300,000. Many who survived were forced to live among the aftermath in makeshift tents. Soon-to-be UCF graduate Bianka Paul was one of them.

Paul, who is earning two degrees in psychology and criminal justice this semester, remembers much of that afternoon in January 2010 that changed her life. Then 12, she was at home with her grandmother, two sisters and cousins while her mother had gone out to call her father, a U.S. citizen who was living stateside at the time.

“I was in the front of my house, and it started shaking. My grandma screamed, ‘It’s an earthquake!’ ” she recalls. “We stayed on the floor until everything stopped and my uncle ran in to help us get out. It was so foggy when we went outside from all the debris. When it started to clear, that’s when I noticed I had been walking on bodies.”

She says the family nearly lost her aunt, who had become trapped under a building. Her relatives all worked to get her out and it took her months to recover. Her grandmother broke her arm from falling when the quake hit. Fortunately, everyone in her family survived.

Paul says that she hasn’t suffered from the trauma and shock of the experience, but there are scenes that stay with her — the school near her house that collapsed and killed the children who were attending; the neighbor who ran back inside a house to save someone but died along with them — and motivate her to make the most of her life.

“That could have happened to me,” she says. “The fact that I got to come the United States, I’m going to take advantage of all the opportunities I can.”

Turning tragedy into triumph

Paul, along with her sisters and mother, eventually moved to Philadelphia with her father, where she started the ninth grade unable to read, speak or comprehend English. She made it a goal to learn it quickly and add to her repertoire of mastered languages: French, Creole and Spanish.

College was another goal. It always was.

“Education is a huge thing in Haitian culture,” says Paul, who is the first in her family to attend college. “Our country believes that with education you can get really far, so it’s something they push hard from the time you’re young. Since I was little, I always wanted to become something big.”

Her family eventually moved to Florida, where she started at Palm Beach State College before transferring to UCF. She has found ways to become involved in the campus culture, joining the Caribbean Students’ Association and a jujitsu club. She says her fellow jujitsu club members have become like family to her. She also made the dean’s list.

“We been through so much in surviving the earthquake, but what amazed us the most is her courage and her determination to keep going and do well in life and think that no matter what everything is going to be alright,” her parents, Jean and Yvonie, wrote in an email. “We feel proud and happy at the same time, and we will do everything in our power to make her earn a master’s degree also because she can and she will.”

“It’s not easy to get through college and get a degree. When I look at where I’ve come from, I’m proud of the fact that I kept going.”

As she achieves one of her dreams Aug. 7, she looks to her future where she hopes to earn a master’s degree in data science and eventually pursue a career as a criminal profiler. When she thinks about finally having her diploma in hand, she can’t help but think about her family.

“I wanted to go to college and get my degree for my family — to make my parents proud and everyone around me proud and be an example for my sisters to look up to,” she says. “It’s not easy to get through college and get a degree. When I look at where I’ve come from, I’m proud of the fact that I kept going.”