Marcela Familiar-Bolaños has counseled students who speak Spanish. Katherine Marcincuk has supported families who have survived domestic violence. And Nancy Sandoval has helped kids cope with life during the pandemic.
Now they have been rewarded with fellowships from the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, a research and policy center at Harvard that encourages graduate students to spend part of their careers in public service.
As students in the Boston College School of Social Work, Familiar-Bolaños, Marcincuk, and Sandoval will work on a range of projects for state and local agencies in Boston over the summer. They are among just 20 graduate students in Massachuetts to receive the fellowship this year.
“This is an incredible opportunity to make tangible change in government and policy that never felt possible to me because I can’t vote,” said Familiar-Bolaños, who grew up in Mexico. “All of a sudden I had this realization that I can have a say in the way things work here.”
Familiar-Bolaños will team up with the Office of the Child Advocate, which works to ensure that kids receive quality care from state agencies. From June to August, she will analyze cases in which juvenile courts help parents and school officials supervise children. Kids who require such assistance have often run away from home, failed to attend school on a regular basis, or been sexually exploited.
Familiar-Bolaños said the project aligns with her career goal to start a nonprofit that provides clinical care to kids and advocates for their rights.
“I’m going to learn so much about policy. I’m going to learn so much about the government. I’m going to learn so much about how to write bills, make testimonies, and advocate in a way that’s effective,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to make some changes that affect people in positive ways.”
Familiar-Bolaños has worked with children for years. Over the past nine months, she has counseled eight students at the Amigos Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, playing fun games to get them to open up. One of her go-to games is Feelings UNO, which teaches kids about their emotions and encourages them to share things that make them happy and sad.
“I want to make sure my kiddos feel like they can chill for a second and just let go,” said Familiar-Bolaños. “I want to have fun with them while teaching them that it’s OK to express their feelings.”
She said she’s happy she chose BC. “I feel like I’ve learned so much in a short period of time,” said Familiar-Bolaños, who belongs to the school’s Latinx Leadership Initiative, which prepares students to work with Latinx clients. “I bring the things that I’ve learned in class to my internship every single day.”
Four years ago, Marcincuk said she was waiting tables at a restaurant. Starting in June, she will be working in the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, whose mission is to promote gender equity. Her specific role is up in the air, but she knows she will be part of an initiative to prevent sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Marcincuk said the fellowship builds on her work at Casa Myrna, a nonprofit in Boston that strives to end domestic violence. Over the past several years, she has provided psychological support and shelter to children made homeless by domestic abuse.
“I think the work I’ve done at Casa Myrna pushed me over the edge for the fellowship,” said Marcincuk. “I can now bring voice to a lot of the issues that I see happen to my clients and that is amazing.”
She dreams of opening a nonprofit that temporarily relieves caregivers of their commitments in times of great need. If, say, a single parent requires emergency surgery and can’t care for a child, the nonprofit would take in the kid until the parent recovers.
“Who is going to take care of that child?” Marcincuk wondered as she mapped out the plan for her nonprofit. “They might have to go into foster care through the Department of Children and Families, and DCF is already an overwhelmed system.”
She said that the fellowship will prepare her to realize her dream. “I said that I want to learn how to build a program, and I’ve been connected with people who know how to do that.”
Her clients, she said, keep her motivated to reach her goals. In addition to working at Casa Myrna, she interns as a family clinician at a school in Boston for young people with disabilities.
“My clients inspire me,” she said. “Every time I doubt myself, my clients are cheering me on, but I’m cheering them on, too, and it’s this wonderful thing.”
Sandoval said her clients at the Excel Academy Charter School in Chelsea, Massachusetts, have primed her to work for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Over the past 10 months, she’s counseled nine students who have taught her about life in Chelsea, where 67 percent of residents are Hispanic.
“It definitely gave me more insight into the Chelsea community,” said Sandoval, who belongs to the Latinx Leadership Initiative. “Knowing the needs of my students and their families will help inform the work I do on the fellowship.”
Over the summer, Sandoval will develop a plan to expand affordable housing in the city, with a focus on serving residents who are Black, indigenous, or people of color. As part of her project, she will craft a strategy to make it easier for residents to access job training, explore careers, and develop basic skills.
“We want to combine affordable housing units and supportive services in the same building,” she said. “I’ll be looking into the services that could help residents be more economically stable.”
Sandoval is not sure where her degree in social work will take her. But she is fairly certain that she wants to work for a city, shaping policies that will improve the lives of Latinx people.
Her parents immigrated from Mexico to the United States, she said, and she moved from California to Massachusetts for the LLI program, which offers courses in Spanish. “I’m on the clinical social work track, but I definitely have a macro heart,” said Sandoval, who received a Dean’s Fellowship to attend the School. “I wanted to learn in Spanish and be Latinx-centered in my practice.”
Her summer fellowship, she added, aligns with her long term plan to work in the Latinx community. “It will give me an opportunity to figure out what it takes,” she said.