In the low-income and predominantly Hispanic community of Maywood, California, where Fatima Perez comes from, many view social workers as people who pluck children from their families, she said.
Perez hopes to change this negative perception by becoming a social worker herself.
Perez, who graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and Chicana/o studies, will attend California State University, Fullerton in fall to pursue a master’s degree in social work with a concentration in children and families.
Although Perez originally wanted to become a teacher because she liked working with children, she felt she would be limited in her capacity to help students outside the classroom.
Perez said her experiences with one kindergarten student when she was in high school influenced her decision to pursue a career that allows her to improve children’s welfare beyond an academic setting.
When Perez volunteered as a tutor at her local elementary school, she noticed a certain kindergartner always went to school hungry and fell behind in class because he didn’t have the energy to focus.
“Usually most kids aren’t big fans of school lunches and don’t want to eat it because they feel their home food is better,” Perez said. “He didn’t deny any food. You could see how much he appreciated it, and that’s when you notice that many times people take little things for granted.”
Perez said she saw many other children at the school who faced similar financial struggles at home.
“Many times kids would be recent immigrants to the country,” Perez said. “I could just see how they were struggling financially and because they didn’t know about any of these services like food stamps that were federally funded or funded through the state, they had to find other resources.”
Having worked as a student teacher at the UCLA Early Care and Education centers for the past three years, Perez said her experience there has taught her the importance of resources on children’s lives, and reinforced her goal of becoming a social worker.
“This was totally different than what I had seen at home as a volunteer,” Perez said. “It was more about comparing the two different worlds and seeing how much a child’s life can change if they have all the things that they didn’t know before.”
For example, she said because many of the children at ECE came from financially stable families, they have the opportunity to learn and understand what makes up a nutritious diet. In contrast, children from low-income communities come from families that can only focus on what they can afford to eat, Perez said.
Andrea Madrigal, a coworker of Perez‘s at ECE who also graduated this year, said Perez has shown a passion for social work throughout college.
“She works very well with kids and has lots of experience with kids as well, which translated very well into her work here (at ECE),” Madrigal said. “She always makes sure to be very involved with the kids. When there is a problem she always intercedes and works it out with them.”
Angela Ocampo, a doctoral candidate in political science who was a teaching assistant in two of Perez’s classes, said Perez’s self-motivated and driven attitude in the classroom translated into success in her extracurricular pursuits in teaching and child care.
“I can see how some of her demeanor as a student played out in all her activities: There’s something about her having a sense of compassion for others in the classroom and community and truly wanting to help children reach their full potential,” Ocampo said.
Perez said she wants to de-stigmatize social work and ensure that underserved communities receive the support they need.
“Within Latino culture, it’s more about pride – people don’t want to ask for help,” Perez said. “If there were more awareness of services, I’m pretty sure that stigma would be decreased, and social workers can be seen as people who can help them.”
Perez said that while social workers do sometimes move children into foster families in cases of neglect or mistreatment, it is often a last resort after all other solutions have failed.
She said her parents initially disapproved of her career choice because they also had a negative perception of social workers. Perez added they became more open-minded and supportive after she explained to them the different ways social workers help people.
“Social workers make sure children have everything they need – a safe home, proper housing, food, everything,” Perez said. “They first try to give families services and give them different things they can apply to in order to make sure they have enough money for food or cheaper housing.”
In the future, Perez said she hopes to help children who struggle with difficulties at home and make sure they have the resources they need.