Social workers have a saying: “We’re not in it for the income. We’re in it for the outcome.” For Elizabeth Mondragon, rising college freshman and aspiring social worker, the phrase rings true. “I want to be a social worker so I can give a voice to those who don’t have one,” she says. “It’s a tough career, but it’s what I want to do.”
And it’s what she will do. In fact, she’s already on her way. Elizabeth recently graduated from Thelma R. Salinas STEM Early College High School with enough credits for an associate degree. “Having that leg up in terms of college credit is invaluable,” says Elizabeth. “I’ll be able to graduate faster and spend less on my education. Plus, doing well will be easier because I’ve been taking college-level courses my whole high school career.”
Those college-level courses were made possible through a partnership with South Texas College. Elizabeth’s alma mater, part of La Joya ISD, is one of 30 Valley early college high schools with which South Texas College partners. “I had actual STC professors as my high school teachers,” says Elizabeth. “They challenged me to think, write, and read on a college level. It was tough, but it’s clearly paid off. Now, I’m the first person in my family to go to college.”
For many years, Elizabeth thought of college as a pipe dream rather than an achievable goal. “The first 10 years of my life were spent moving constantly.” Elizabeth, her brothers and sisters, and her mother were trying to outrun their father, an abusive man who caused the family to split their time between Las Vegas and Mexico for years. “When you live like that, you feel a continual fear that makes it hard to imagine a stable life, let alone college,” she says. “The experience was terrible, but it also gave me direction. It inspired me to become a social worker.”
Things started to change when Elizabeth and her family were finally able to settle down. “We moved to Mission, Texas and got enrolled in the local schools,” she explains. “After middle school, I signed up to go to Thelma R. Salinas. I didn’t know much about it, only that I would have STC professors as teachers and get college credit during high school. The thought that I could leave high school halfway to a bachelor’s degree made college seem like a reality for the first time.”
Elizabeth’s first few years at the early college high school were no walk in the park. STC’s curriculum is designed to prepare students for college-level rigor, so starting off can be a challenging adjustment. “I remember it being very stressful in the beginning,” she recalls, “but soon I got used to the expectations. Now I feel totally prepared for college.”
And college is on the horizon. Elizabeth has been accepted into UTRGV, where she plans to earn her bachelor’s degree in social work. Because of the credits she’s already earned from South Texas College, Elizabeth will be ahead of the curve. “Going from where I used to be – a scared kid with no real roots – to where I am now, about to be a college student, feels incredible. Soon I’ll be able to help more kids like me find the same kind of bright future I see ahead of me. And now my older sister is figuring out how to go to college, too.”
They say social work is the art of listening and the science of hope. An effective social worker trains hard, keeps up with the latest research, serves with confidence and gentleness, and has the grace to do it all in the bleakest corners of society. Elizabeth Mondragon, social worker in the making, will soon join the ranks of this noble profession, and there is no doubt she will succeed.