I heard about the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) as a student in the Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) program in my high school (Montgomery Blair). My ACES coach, Jose Medrano, explained the different higher education paths I could take. ACES was really essential in helping me figure out higher education as a first-generation student. I was surprised to learn that I could go to Montgomery College (MC) and then transfer to a program offered by one of nine Maryland state universities on the USG campus in Montgomery County. Thanks to ACES, I attended Montgomery College and was able to earn my associates degree for free through a combination of pell grants and scholarships. ACES also taught me how to successfully navigate FAFSA and MDCAPS to help fund my education.

I first applied to the social work program offered by UMBC at USG, based on my interest in becoming a social worker within the immigrant community, and because the campus was the most cost-effective and convenient pathway for me. However, once I was accepted into the program, I decided I wanted to double major in social work and psychology. I am very passionate about social justice advocacy and supporting vulnerable populations, so the double major option was a great opportunity that fit my career goals, and just so happened to align with pre-requisite courses I had already taken at MC.

While at USG, a couple of friends and I co-founded the Latinx Student Association (LSA), which focused on celebrating diversity and supporting the community with direct support through donation drives and holding civic engagements. LSA later transformed into the Students for Immigration Advocacy (SIA), which aimed to bring awareness to immigrant rights and continued to support the community through donation drives and food distribution efforts.For example, we donated baby items to the Latin American Youth Center during the COVID-19 pandemic and over 100 hot meals to individuals experiencing homelessness through the mutual aid group, Audelia Community Response Team. Additionally, I was a proud member of the Peer Advisory Team that serves to support first semester UMBC-USG students navigate UMBC-USG. I really enjoyed supporting my peers in this role, to help them along with this important stepping stone for success. 

The social work program includes a year-long internship that students complete as part of our curriculum. Starting in the Fall 2021 semester, I landed an opportunity with Interfaith Works (IW) as a social work intern within their Interfaith Works Residences program (IWR), which supports individuals experiencing chronic homelessness through permanent supportive housing. While in this program, I worked directly with immigrants and people with disabilities and behavioral health diagnoses. I also assisted in case management through taking residents to medical appointments and initiating and facilitating the transition to housing in the community. 

I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in May of 2022 and was thrilled to secure a job with CASA, the largest grassroots immigrant advocacy organization in the mid-Atlantic. At CASA, I currently work in development as an individual giving associate. I’m gaining more knowledge in this role about advocating for immigrants and the working class community, and have really enjoyed fundraising and developing the growing capacity of the organization to sustain a movement. It’s incredible!

I later plan to attend the University of Maryland, School of Social Work master’s program at USG, where I was already accepted (yay!), but deferred to fall 2023 so that I could gain a little more experience working at this nonprofit that is so close to my heart. When I do begin the MSW program, my concentration will be in clinical social work. I hope to become an LCSW-C (Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical) following the completion of my master’s degree.

I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in May of 2022 and was thrilled to secure a job in my field with CASA, the largest grassroots immigrant advocacy organization in the mid-Atlantic.
Julia Aviles Zavala