For Keyla Romero-Velasquez, the social work building at Salem State is “its own little world.” The short walk to the building on Central Campus offers time to clear her mind. Inside, she finds an atmosphere that is warm and inviting, where small classes and group discussions give way to meaningful conversations about different life experiences.
“We put ourselves out there and show vulnerability. That's what I love about social work: the vulnerability that we all share with each other and how close we feel,” Romero-Velasquez says.
She is on track to graduate in 2022 with a degree in social work and a minor in art + design. Romero-Velasquez initially came into Salem State through the Summer Bridge Academy, an alternative admissions program designed to help high school graduates develop the necessary skills for academic success in college. She felt “seen” by Salem State and the SBA program, which helped pave the way for her path to a social work degree.
When Romero-Velasquez entered her first year at Salem State, she thought she wanted to study political science. She learned quickly that the subject matter and political debates weren’t the right fit for her. It wasn’t until friends connected her to Salem State School of Social Work Professor Lamont Simmons that Romero-Velasquez realized social work was exactly where she wanted to be.
Simmons, whose research focuses on the academic strengths and issues related to men of color, first-generation college students, and non-traditional age undergraduate students, has served as a mentor and inspiration to Romero-Velasquez. She now aspires to obtain a PhD in the field to conduct research and travel.
“Professor Simmons tells all of the social work students to ‘use your third ear.’ We really need to be conscious and really pay attention to what the other person is saying,” Romero-Velasquez says.
Growing up in Chelsea and Revere, social workers came into Romero-Velasquez's life at a young age. It wasn’t until she grew older that she recognized and appreciated the ways those social workers were “really there to help.” Romero-Velasquez hopes to give back to those communities by working in Chelsea or Boston one day, because that is where she sees the most need for her expertise.
“It’s so much better when you talk to a social worker who is actually living in the community, rather than someone who is representing that community,” Romero-Velasquez says. “I want to work in community building and go into macro social work. Really working with communities, working with policies that affect minorities and people of color, and working to get better ideas in the community.”
Romero-Velasquez has volunteered for Salem’s LEAP for Education, where she built relationships with underserved students. She has also become involved on the Salem State campus through her role as chairperson of the student government’s diversity and inclusion committee, and as vice president of the Latin American Student Organization. One of her favorite Salem State experiences involved creating a “Circle of Me” chart as part of a program called “Beneath the Identities.” The diversity and inclusion exercise invited students to confront stereotypes and explore intersectionality, multiculturalism, privilege, and underlying biases.
“We try to create a safe space where people will come and really talk about these subjects,” says Romero-Velasquez, whose parents came to the United States from Honduras.
Between her coursework, involvement on campus and volunteering, Romero-Velasquez also makes time to tend to her mental health. In her self-care toolkit are yoga practices, meditations and reading. The social work field and courses can be emotionally “heavy” at times, she says, as students share their own personal experiences and sometimes relive traumatic personal events.
Her advice to social work students? Take deep breaths. Check in with yourself. Do the readings.
“It isn’t all rainbows and sunshine,” she says of the field. But, she notes, “I'm going into the classroom because I am proud of where I come from, and I'm proud of where I was before. I'm proud of how I brought myself to where I am, and that sharing my experiences helps me heal with myself. And I know that it will help them understand what people really go through, because I experienced it firsthand.”