Graduating Social Work Student, Given a ''Hand Up,'' Becomes Guiding Force for Others

Graduating Social Work Student, Given a ''Hand Up,'' Becomes Guiding Force for Others

Rutgers-Camden senior Melissa Velez organized student service trip to Puerto Rico

Melissa Velez credits Rutgers–Camden mentors for pushing her to her limits.

“Anyone who is going through something can use a hand up to get back on their feet. It’s about showing people that you care, that they aren’t alone.”
 
– Melissa Velez
 

When Melissa Velez seemed to have lost all direction, there was someone to step in and convince her that her life was worth turning around.

Velez had grown up in Vineland in a house with parents who battled addiction and left her and her brother to mostly fend for themselves. After leaving high school during her sophomore year, she failed the GED repeatedly. But at 18 she decided to return to school, where a guidance counselor convinced her that she could have a bright future if she would believe in herself.

It’s advice she carried with her, through Cumberland County College and as a student majoring in social work at Rutgers University-Camden, where she has found support while also working to help others – including organizing a service trip to Puerto Rico to assist with Hurricane Maria relief efforts.

“Anyone who is going through something can use a hand up to get back on their feet,” she says. “It’s about showing people that you care, that they aren’t alone.”

Living in the dorms at Rutgers-Camden, Velez had a stable home environment for the first time in her life and became involved in the social and academic opportunities she found outside her door.

“I learned to come out of my shell and get involved,” she says.

In her social work classes, Velez learned about policy issues related to her field and served in an internship with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families’ Child Protection and Permanency. Working out of the agency’s Camden South office in Voorhees, Velez shadowed case workers tasked with recognizing signs of abuse and neglect and, if need be, removing the child from the home.

“It was hard because I remember that experience,” she says. “The internship reminded me that you have to have a big heart for this type of work.”

Velez received support through the Educational Opportunity Fund and TRiO Student Support Services, dedicated to supporting low-income and first-generation students. She was soon returning the favor serving as a peer mentor for undergraduates in the Center for Learning and Student Success.

“I was helping students who are just like I was,” she says. “I wanted to be there for anything they needed.”

Her work didn’t end there. From people such as Ana Rodriguez, assistant director of TRiO, says Velez, she learned to never stop challenging herself.

“They pushed me to my limits,” she says. “I was amazed at what I could do.”

Such was the case when Velez approached Rodriguez about planning the service trip to Puerto Rico. Velez worked with other students to raise more than $4,500 to sponsor the flight, lodging and ground transportation, as well as $1,000 for a donation to students from the University of Puerto Rico who lost items in the storm.

During the trip, organized as an alternative spring break, the Rutgers–Camden students spent two days painting a church that was affected by Hurricane Maria. They also visited the University of Puerto Rico, where they delivered letters and their donation, and made a stop at the Centro para Puerto Rico, a community resource center that provides direct support to communities affected by the storm.

Velez now hopes that the trip will become an annual tradition at Rutgers-Camden.

Upon graduating, the Camden resident plans to earn her master’s degree, in the hopes of one day serving as a guidance counselor or advisor on the high school or college level.

Whatever she does, she is aware that she has the power to make a difference in people’s lives.

“It’s all about helping people realize that they are better than they think they are,” she says. “You can overcome your difficulties, and be a testimony to others who are going through them.”