Young Latina Graduates Share Their Experiences in Social Justice Work

Quite a few of the Latina students who graduate from Saint Marys College have gone on to work in the social justice field, and we wanted to hear about their experiences in the working world and how Saint Mary's had helped them to prepare for life beyond college.

So Professor Denise Witzig, coordinator of the Women's Studies Department at Saint Mary's, invited several young Latina alumnae who have worked in social justice jobs to appear on a panel at the Soda Center moderated by Professor Myrna Santiago, chair of the History Department. The graduates shared their recent experiences, along with recollections of how Saint Mary's shaped them and some advice for the students in the audience. Here are the stories and words of wisdom from these young graduates of the last decade.

Kristina Lovato-Hermann '00

Lovato-Hermann started her career at Saint Mary's in the High Potential Program, which offers support for first-generation low-income students, and she could be an advertisement for its value. After receiving her B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology, she spent two years as a Lasallian Volunteer working for a New York City program for at-risk children in the Bronx. After the 9/11 attacks, she moved back to California and worked at Larkin Street Youth Services with homeless and runaway kids in San Francisco's rough Tenderloin neighborhood. Later, she worked with San Francisco's child protective services unit, helping to reunify families that had been split apart. Realizing that she wanted to learn more about child welfare issue, she earned a master's degree in social work from San Francisco State University. She now teaches social group work at S.F. State, coordinates the Title IV-E Child Welfare Training Program and has her sights set on a Ph.D.

On her SMC experience: "At Saint Mary's, I found social justice awareness and advocacy skills. I fell in love with women's studies and social justice work after reading Carol Hanisch's 1969 essay ‘The Personal Is Political.' For someone from a single-parent, low-income household, it made sense to me."

On her journey: "Feminism changed my life in a big way. I saw how personal issues relate to larger social issues – race, class, gender. It provides me today with a lens though which I look at life."

On the High Potential Program. "In the High Potential program, I developed long-lasting friendships that run very deep. Dr. D. ( former HP Director John Dennis) was part drill sergeant, part mentor. A lot of us came from educational experiences that were not up to par. He got real with us. He provided a role model of what kind of leader I wanted to be."

Greatest Reward: "It's an honor and a gift to work with people at their most vulnerable moments."

Laura Nunez-Galleno '01

When she was at Saint Mary's, Nunez-Galleno was deeply involved in the women's rights movement. She helped to establish the Women's Resource Center and was a leader of the 2001 protest to win swift punishment for students accused of sexual assault. Her activism at Saint Mary's "solidified her commitment to social justice," she says. After graduating with a B.A. in politics, she earned a law degree from Golden Gate University School of Law and led the Latino Law Students' Association there. She is now a family law facilitator for Contra Costa Superior Court, working on cases involving child support, restraining orders and domestic violence.

On her Saint Mary's experience: "Don't take for granted what you get from Saint Mary's. It's going to benefit you."

On her journey: "I had to struggle so hard to come here to Saint Mary's. For me to leave home was a big deal, a betrayal. When I became involved in campus social justice activities, (my family) thought I was crazy. Now they're so proud of what I've accomplished."

Greatest reward: "Working with people going through traumatic events. It's very fulfilling to help people when they need it most."

Proudest achievement: "Being the mother of a one-year-old daughter. Her world will hopefully be different. I've also learned the importance of balancing work and family."

Vanessa Cornejo '02 MA Educational Counseling '06

Cornejo came to Saint Mary's as a first-generation college student interested in studying adolescent psychology and took advantage of the college's High Potential program. Her interest in social justice blossomed in her junior year women's studies class with Professor Patricia Longo, and she went on to help found the SMC chapter of Hermanas Unidas, which supports Latina and Chicana students. She received a B.S. in psychology, with a minor in Women's Studies. Later, she returned to Saint Mary's to earn her master's in educational counseling. She is now studying to become a licensed marriage and family counselor. She has worked as a case manager for an Oakland foster family project; does therapy work with many younger women, teens and children who have been sexually abused; and advocates for women who are single mothers. "I'm very passionate about what I do," she says.

Advice: "Whatever field you get into, you're going to be representing your group. You constantly have to educate, both at work and at home."

On the High Potential Program: "I wouldn't have a degree from Saint Mary's if it wasn't for the High Potential program. I was so intimidated by Seminar! The tutors in HP (including Kristina Lovato-Hermann) shaped me so much."

Greatest rewards: "Knowing you're one of the few who is representing your group."

Nora Garcia '09

While she was at Saint Mary's, Garcia served as an HP mentor and interned for then-U.S. Senator Ellen Tauscher and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner. After earning her B.A. in English, she landed a job in promotions with the Oakland Raiders. But the business world wasn't for her, so she tried her hand at teaching. She earned a teaching credential from Saint Mary's and worked in two very different environments-a prestigious Catholic high school and a school serving low-income Spanish-speaking immigrants. She is now happily back at Saint Mary's, studying for a master's degree in creative writing.

On Las Hermanas: "I'm so grateful to Las Hermanas for the support they gave me. When I came to Saint Mary's, it was culture shock. I thought: ‘I really am a minority.'"

On her journey: "I had to educate my family about the need for more education. They said, ‘Don't you have enough pieces of paper yet?' But I made it easier for my younger brother, who's pre-med."

Greatest reward: "Giving back to your community is a great aspect of teaching-earning the students' trust, helping them the way I was helped, it comes full circle."

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Photos by Teresa Castle