Susy Gomez’s heart broke as she listened to the new college student share his story. The young Peruvian engineering student had excellent grades and a full scholarship, but between him and his mother, a disabled woman who tried to feed the family by selling barbecue, they could not raise the $100 for additional school expenses like supplies.
“The first step was to get him registered for school,” Gomez explained. She used some of her own sponsorship money to pay the registration fee and searched for another sponsor to help with the rest. As an intern for the People of Peru Project Backpack Program, it was one of her jobs to assist and find sponsors for families who needed school supplies for children in school.
She already sponsored some other families herself, so Gomez shared this student’s story with a short term volunteer working in the area. “The volunteer decided to become a sponsor!” Gomez remembered excitedly. “This felt like a great accomplishment. But I know so many more who need help.”
Now working toward a master’s degree in social work at the University of Chicago, Gomez graduated from Union College in May 2015 with a degree in social work. And while most social work students fulfill their required semester-long internship at one of many local social services agencies in Lincoln, Gomez elected to head south for three months in Iquitos, Peru.
Serving people in Peru
In Peru, Gomez filled every spare moment volunteering at three different agencies: People of Peru Project, a nonprofit that works closely with the Adventist church; the Instituto de Estudios por la Infancia y la Familia (IDEIF), a nonprofit that works with victims and potential victims of sexual trafficking; and she spent a week volunteering at Santa Monica, the city’s orphanage.
Half of her week with the People of Peru Project’s Backpack Program was dedicated to providing school supplies for families in need. “Our main goal during my time there was to create an intake system we could use to assess need in the families who applied to the program,” said Gomez. “We also started a system to document the families receiving help. This program required frequent home visits as we interviewed those who applied.”
On weekends, Gomez put her Spanish language proficiency to work translating for short term volunteer groups that were brought to the area by the People of Peru Project to serve the community—including medical clinics in the Amazon jungle.
The other half of the week, Gomez served as a counselor for four girls in the IDEIF program, while also planning activities and creating programs to raise community awareness. “One of the most fulfilling experiences came when counseling one of the girls,” said Gomez. “It was amazing to see her grow and to walk with her through the many issues we addressed. Although I only saw a small part of her journey, it was beautiful to see her develop and blossom through the time we spent together.”
Gomez felt her experience outside the United States was critical to her educational experience. “I wanted to see what social work looks like in other parts of the world and learn how it can be used in an international context,” she said. “I definitely feel my internship gave me a good taste of this. It was an opportunity to see deep needs and to explore how social work can help address those needs. I really had a chance to appreciate the importance of research in my field, to experience counseling firsthand, and to meet one-on-one with people from different walks of life. It also put me in contact with other great professionals from whom I learned a lot.”
Ultimately, Gomez chose to study social work because of her love for people and her fascination with human behavior. “I wanted a career that would prepare me to help people as individuals, but also as members of a family unit and community,” she said. “Aside from the helping side, I really enjoy the academic aspect of it; this includes exploring human behavior and doing research to find needs and methods of best practice.”
Not just theory
Beyond her classroom experience at Union College Gomez found a second family and the mentors and community connections to give her valuable experience in the field even before her experience in Peru.
Active in both the Social Work Club and the Amnesty/Tiny Hands International Club on campus, Gomez worked on raising awareness of human rights abuse around the world and encouraged others to join. Also, she helped raise awareness on the effects of human trafficking and modern day slavery.
In Union College’s Studio for Writing and Speaking, Gomez tutored students who needed help brainstorming ideas for writing assignments, lent an extra set of eyes to catch grammatical errors, or sometimes just offered encouragement to hang in there and continue writing papers or speeches.
And through her teachers, “I was able to make connections with people and this helped me gain my summer internships over the last few years,” she explained. That included an internship with Nebraska Appleseed, a local nonprofit that seeks justice and equality for all Nebraskans. While there Gomez worked with a program to encourage college students to vote in political elections.
As she completes her master’s degree at one of the top three social work schools in the country, Gomez plans to take advantage of the many internship opportunities in the Chicago area to build on what she started at Union College. “My ultimate career goal is to found a nonprofit to work with human rights,” said Gomez.
By Megan Wehling, student writer