Social work major Marisabel Santiago wants to help at-risk youth be successful in life.


Chicopee native Marisabel Santiago '14 wants to pursue a career helping at-risk youth.

Taking a Risk to Make a Difference

There’s a toughness and determination in petite, soft-spoken Marisabel Santiago ’14, a social work major and criminal justice minor, that she hopes to translate into a career working with at-risk youth.

Social work wasn’t something she had an immediate connection to, but she became intrigued when people assumed she was already in the program. In truth, her major was undecided until well into her sophomore year. But when the topic of social work kept coming up, she sought out her advisor, Dr. Walter Breau, who put her in touch with then Social Work Director Mary Brainerd (now professor emerita).

“I discovered it’s not what everyone thinks. Some of the stories are tragic and sad, but social work is an opportunity for me to make a difference and prevent people from having these tragic stories,” Marisabel said.

A self-described extrovert, Marisabel put her sense of humor and love for improv on display as host of several campus events, such as Elms Got Talent. She was also a member of the women’s basketball team, served as a student ambassador for Admissions, and was a resident advisor (RA).

Those people skills have already served her well as she completed the required 400 hours of practicum work at Kelly Full Service Community School in Holyoke and held a paid internship last summer at a youth residential treatment center in Memphis, Tennessee.

At Kelly School, she founded the 6-8 grade girls’ basketball team, coaching them while also trying to promote leadership, better academic performance, attendance and classroom behavior.

The team had a rocky start, with the girls skipping practice and ignoring Marisabel’s guidelines for team membership. That turned around when she sat them down for a frank conversation.  

“I talked to them about how difficult it is to be a Latina woman in this country, especially coming from a poverty-ridden neighborhood, and to try to be successful, only to have the system shut you down because you got messed up when you were a kid,” she said.

Building that connection “is all about just being honest with them,” Marisabel said. ‘That’s worked for me so far.”

Her time in Memphis for Youth Villages involved supervising a group of 11- to 13-year-old boys with emotional, psychological and sexual behavior problems.

“Both of those experiences together (at Kelly and Youth Villages) definitely solidified my desire to work with kids,” particularly at-risk youth, she said. “I know I want to work directly with them as a school counselor or probation officer or a residential counselor. I like working with kids, motivating them to be better and do better, and get rid of this cyclical pattern of poverty and crime.”

Because Chicopee is her hometown, Marisabel didn’t think she’d end up at Elms, let alone live on campus all four years.

“Coming to Elms helped me grow as a leader. I definitely shaped me, because if I’d gone to a big school I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities,” she said.

This fall Marisabel heads to the University of Southern California, where she will pursue her master’s degree in social work.