Two Social Work Majors Are Helping Their Latino Community

Social work student and alumnus sit on bench in campus Quad

“After all these years of working in the Latino community, it’s clear to me that the United States needs more bilingual counselors.” – Cruz Zapata

Social workers help others resolve problems and obtain resources, provide support during crises and facilitate social responses to needs. Here are two Latina social work majors who represent great examples of that definition.  

Lady Franco (pictured in photo left), who earned her B.S.W. at RIC in 2023 and who has begun her first semester of RIC’s M.S.W. program, is an immigration housing advocate for undocumented clients at Sojourner House. Sojourner House is a nonprofit organization in Providence that provides advocacy, housing and education for victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. 

“There’s a stigma that only women suffer from domestic violence, but we also have male clients who come with their children,” says Franco. “I help my clients find a safe home. I provide support and information so they can learn to navigate the system and I find resources within the community. I also connect them with the Rhode Island College Workforce Development Hub in Central Falls, which is there to help them achieve their economic, educational and health goals.”

As a social worker, Franco feels passionate about her job and motivated to keep doing it. “All the knowledge I obtained over the years and my experiences as an immigrant and a person who once received help from a social worker have enabled me to understand, empathize and connect with my clients in a very memorable way.”

Franco enjoys most advocating for her clients. 

“Over the four years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve been able to fight for my clients’ rights and seek the help they need to have a prosperous life,” she says. “Now that I’ve started my master’s degree, my goal is to become a clinical social worker. A couple of years from now I see myself counseling my Latino and immigrant community to help improve their mental health.”

Franco – a mother of three – first enrolled at RIC in 2017, taking ESL classes. By 2019 she began her B.S. in social work. 

“Studying in a second language isn’t easy, so, resources at RIC like the Writing Center helped me whenever I was having a hard time writing my essays,” she says. “And throughout the years, Learning for Life has provided me with food from their Food 4 Thought Pantry, in addition to allowances for personal expenses. If you look for help, RIC will always be there to support you.” 

She acknowledges that her teachers’ and classmates’ unconditional support helped her put aside her fears and insecurities and grow professionally, providing her with the ability to be hands-on when assisting her clients. 

“I didn't like the clinician/patient role-play activities we did in class, but now I see how they helped me in my career,” she says. “I thank my professors – Stefan Battle, Peter Little, Jesse Capece, Jeff Schwartz, Donald Laliberte and Ryan Burns – for challenging me in their class assignments and for helping me be the best version of myself. I also thank Paula Coutinho, the former M.S.W. director of admissions, for all of her advice.”

“Looking back, I see now that the fear I felt when I first arrived in the United States almost a decade ago and the trauma that some experiences left me with were necessary. It shaped me, made me resilient and made me who I am now. Today I have the voice to be heard and to fight for my client’s rights so they don’t have to go through similar situations. Dreaming is worth it, dreams come true.”

Alumna Cruz Zapata (pictured in photo right) completed her M.S.W. degree at RIC in 2023. A native of Colombia, she arrived in the United States in 2001 with a B.S.W. but with precarious English to find a job in her field. It wasn’t until she learned the language that she was able to venture back into her area of expertise. 

“My first job opportunity as a bilingual social worker was at AIDS Care Ocean State as a Case Manager in 2010,” she says. “I had 40 to 50 patients. My job was to follow up with their medical appointments and medications, connect them with health insurance and housing and other necessary resources. I worked my way up from there.”

In 2015 Zapata was hired by Children’s Friend, a nonprofit agency that works with Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children and families. 

“I’ve worked at Children’s Friend for eight years now,” she says. “I visit families with small children, pregnant women and new mothers and instruct them on the upbringing and education of children, especially during the child’s first three years of life. I connect families with resources such as pediatricians, food and clothing donation sites, financial assistance and welfare benefits, among others, even if they are undocumented.” 

Zapata says that although being a social worker can be an emotionally draining career, earning her M.S.W. at Rhode Island College was not only a dream come true, it allowed her to become a certified social work clinician. 

“I always wanted to provide mental health counseling,” she says. “After all these years of working in the Latino community, it’s clear to me that the United States needs more bilingual counselors. Finding a therapist who speaks Spanish can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” 
Zapata also values RIC’s social work program for its cultural diversity and outstanding professors. 

“I had excellent professors who supported me with my academic writing,” she says. “It was a great challenge to learn side-by-side with people who are native English speakers; however, I learned a lot. I can’t thank my professors – Drs. Deborah Siegel, Christiane Petrin Lambert, Vilna Tejeda and Joise Garzón, and my internship's supervisor Crissany Nazario – enough for all their knowledge and advice.”

Bachelor of Social Work

Master of Social Work