Stephanie Rodriguez is a part-time social work student at Salem State and describes herself as a “tough cookie.” She has overcome challenging obstacles in her life as she pursues her goal to become a social worker and help young people in her native Chelsea.
Before entering Salem State, Rodriguez had a long resume: at 18, she created the “Mobilizing for Change Coalition” in Chelsea to teach young people about the risks of substance abuse. She went on to receive her certified nursing assistant certification, and later her associate's degree in human services at Bunker Hill Community College. She reached these milestones while working as a single mother to two young children, and--for a period--homeless, after their home burned in an electrical fire.
It was not an easy decision to continue with her education while facing difficult personal challenges. But between her desire to help young people, the strong support of Salem State faculty, flexibility in class scheduling, and recommendations she heard from students in the Salem State School of Social Work, Rodriguez chose to keep going.
“One of the biggest things for me is that the Salem State social work program has night classes, a lot of night classes. So I can work until 6 pm, and then go to class,” Rodriguez says. “That was one of the key things for me was being able to do that, have two jobs, be a mother, and deal with homelessness and other things.”
Rodriguez quickly connected with professor Lisa Johnson, now the interim dean of the School of Social Work, before officially enrolling.
“She's just everywhere. She is literally just everywhere,” Rodriguez says of Johnson. “She was the person who said, ‘you know what, I’m really busy, but let’s take a minute and let’s hear you out. Let’s see how we can help you.’ And that, to me, is really important. She genuinely cares for her social work students, and the success of all of her students.”
School of Social Work Professors Elspeth Slayter and Lisa Masciulli have also provided key support to Rodriguez.
When her mother tested COVID-19-positive at the height of the pandemic and could not work, Rodriguez and her family began to feel the threat of financial and food insecurity. The residual effect on her university coursework led Rodriguez to confide in Masciulli. The professor tapped on student support services to arrange for short-term food assistance.
“Her support helped me so much. That is something that I'll be forever grateful for, because it really meant a lot to my kids, my mom, to everybody. She’s very special,” she says of Masciulli.
Rodriguez also thanks Yomi Rivera, an administrative assistant in the social work school, for fostering a welcoming environment in the social work building: “Yomi is like the face of the social work department. It’s a kind face, a familiar face--somebody who is always in a good mood...you're not leaving Yomi’s office with unanswered questions, you know,” Rodriguez says.
For Rodriguez, it’s that comfortability factor that has shaped her experience: “With the Salem State social work department, it feels like family,” she says.
Pursuing social work is deeply personal for Rodriguez. Social workers with the department of children and families entered her life at a young age.
“I think I chose social work for the little person inside of me,” she says. “ I feel like I want to do social work because I want to do it right. I want to work the correct way. I want to make a difference. I want to build trust in relationships. And I want to be able to say that I helped someone.”
Her goal is to work in Chelsea Public Schools while continuing her current role as director of the “Chelsea Reach After School Program.” Rodriguez cherishes the program and says she has fought hard to ensure it continues in the city. “Chelsea Reach” offers tutoring services, project-based learning, evening meals and a safe environment for children in Chelsea during after-school hours.
“The more that I work with youth in my community, I realized that there were a lot of similarities...There are a lot of things that I can connect to, relate to and reason with,” she says of the Chelsea students.
Rodriguez is a junior and expects to graduate in 2022 as she continues with her part-time schedule. She is confident the Salem State School of Social Work will help her get there.
“If you know for a fact that you want to be a social worker, then Salem State is the school for you,” Rodriguez says. “It has all of the social work qualities and tools available for you that you're going to need to learn to be a social worker yourself.”