A transformational internship gave social work graduate Alejandra Ocasio ’19 a new understanding of the connections between culture, identity, and educational achievement.
The “Cool Aunt”
Social workers have a responsibility to put themselves in “uncomfortable situations,” says Alejandra Ocasio ’19, a resident of Springfield, MA. When they do, real social justice work can start to take place.
At Kelly Elementary School in Holyoke, MA, Alejandra put this idea into action. Counseling students in grades K-8, she emphasized messages of positive mental health, self-care, and women’s empowerment. Considering the social and economic instability of the area — Holyoke has twice the poverty rate of anywhere else in Massachusetts, and high crime — Alejandra acted as an extra safety net for students looking for support.
“Those students need someone like me,” said Alejandra, noting that approximately 95% of Kelly School’s students are Hispanic. “I think being Latina made it a totally different experience because I was able to relate to students on a different level.”
Alejandra’s reputation started to resemble that of the “cool aunt,” she said, someone who students felt comfortable approaching. Completing 400 hours of casework at the school offered the chance to gradually form bonds with students that only strengthened over time.
“I knew I had to do it,” she said. “I had never experienced something like that in my life, even growing up in Springfield.”
Personal Growth at Elms
Social work came naturally to Alejandra, whose friends describe her as their “go-to person” when it comes to discussing life. However, it wasn’t until she enrolled in the off-campus social work program at Springfield Technical Community College that things began to click.
“I can see how I’ve grown,” she said. “I actually feel like I’m ready to be out in the field, as a professional.”
Her classes with social work professor Miguel Arce left the biggest impact on her. “My culture is very important to me, and being able to relate to others that come from that same background — and have become professional and successful in education — gives me a lot of encouragement,” she said.
After graduating from Elms, Alejandra secured a job in Behavioral Health Network’s Center for Traumatic Brian Injury. Her short term goals include earning her Master of Social Work (MSW) and becoming a licensed clinical social worker. Culture remains at the forefront of Alejandra’s work. She intends to serve the Latinx community by facilitating self-discovery and encouraging her clients to accept their identities in all of their complexity.
“Love yourself and love others — social work is my vehicle to drive that,” she said.