This spring has already been hectic for speaker Gabrielle Mitchell, MSW ’22. Within weeks, she learned that she would be receiving the Outstanding Senior Women’s Academic Achievement Award from UConn’s Women Center and had also been nominated as Social Worker of the Year by the Connecticut Alliance of Foster and Adoptive Families. through him. employer, the Directorate for Children and the Family (DCF). “I received all this news within weeks of each other and I’ve been on cloud nine ever since,” she says.
Gabrielle truly excelled as a master’s student at UConn, where she focused her studies on the Individual, Group, and Families concentration. During her time at the School, she established herself as a student leader and relied on her education to serve clients through her on-the-job experiences.
Earlier in the pandemic, Gabrielle did case management in the family HIV program at Connecticut Children’s and UConn Health. Although she was unable to meet with clients in person, she ensured that her clients took their HIV medications, attended their appointments and received the financial assistance they needed. She also attended clinical huddles every morning to get updates on new and existing patients.
It was during her second year that Gabrielle was able to apply a clinical lens and classroom learning to serve clients at DCF where she worked full time. “It was basically about using a clinical lens on an existing case and seeing how, using that lens, we could better engage families and come up with more appropriate treatment recommendations,” she explains. “We could see that it doesn’t have to be a therapeutic setting or role, but it could be done using the different theories and perspectives that we learned in our MSW studies.”
These perspectives informed her work with a mother struggling with mental illness. “Each family, each individual is separate, and they need to be screened based on their experiences. This is how we will see the progress and the results that we would like to see for the cases to be successfully closed,” she says.
While juggling internship and studies, Gabrielle found time to also co-chair the Organization of Black Student Social Workers. Although the experience was completely new to her, at the height of Covid she hosted a virtual yoga event and art activity. “It was exciting and it was a new experience because it was something I had never done before, meeting different groups of people within the other student organization groups and providing opportunities for students throughout of Covid.”
“Gabrielle is an exceptional student and leader,” said Trisha Hawthorne-Noble, Director of SSW’s Office of Student and Academic Services. “She was president of the G.S.O. Organization for Black Student Social Workers as well as a committee member of Black History 365, and brought communities together. Additionally, she is very involved in communities outside of school and continues to advocate for economic and racial justice. Without a doubt, Gabrielle will continue to be an agent of change in the profession.
What does Gabrielle, who plans to pursue a leadership position at DCF after graduation, want to tell her fellow Commencement graduates? “What I plan is to remind them of our ethical and moral obligations in this area and to give them hope and excitement for what awaits them in the future, in their new or continue in this area,” she notes. She will also address the challenges of continuing their education during a global pandemic. “I’m going to acknowledge it briefly, but really making sure that [graduates] know they should be proud of themselves, their families should be proud, their friends should be proud, and what the expectations are for the work moving forward.
Co-speaker Julio Leon Ortiz, BSW ’22, was equally thrilled, if a little nervous, to be asked to speak at the ceremony in May. “I’m excited about people’s journeys and where they’re heading and celebrating this really pivotal and really important time after two tough years that we’ve all been through in different ways,” he said.
As a first-generation college student who had the support of social workers early in his life, Julio appreciated the opportunity to give back and help others. His field placement involved supporting other students through the Academic Achievement Center on the UConn Hartford campus. “It was an honor to do this and to be a source of support, inspiration, motivation, especially for our first generation undergraduates who also come from similar cultural backgrounds like me, being BIPOC, being Hispanic, being the first ones going to college, which can be very intimidating.
Through the UConn Connects mentorship program, Julio supported both students who were struggling academically as well as others who simply needed extra encouragement. The program offers workshops and presentations to help students study effectively for exams and meet other challenges.
It’s this kind of peer support that Julio enjoyed throughout his undergraduate journey. Despite the pandemic and virtual learning, he benefited from the camaraderie of his classmates. “I think that sense of community, that sense of friendship really touched me,” he notes.
“Julio embodies and promulgates social work values in everything he does,” says Paula Nieman, Assistant Professor-in-Residence and BSW Program Director. “Whether it’s offering emotional or practical support to a classmate, contributing to faculty research on vulnerable members of the community, or organizing efforts to bring additional services to students in ‘UConn Hartford, Julio is a passionate advocate for social, racial and economic justice and an engaged community-builder.
After graduation, Julio will work or commit to a year of service through AmeriCorps before returning to school to earn his Masters in Social Work. He believes his upbringing at UConn prepared him for all that is to come. “It really challenged me as a human being and gave me the skills to thrive,” he says. “I am ready to make a difference in the world and feel empowered, prepared and ready to take on challenges. I think there is room to grow and learn about myself and the work I will be doing.
Like last year, both Beginning speakers will read the same speech, but Gabrielle will deliver it in English while Julio will share the message in Spanish.
Congratulations to all of our 2022 graduates!