skip to main content

‘Everyone Can Learn From You’: M.S.W. Student Uses Lived Experience to Advocate Effectively


One of the most pivotal moments of Harvey Cruz’s military career came while stationed in the United Arab Emirates. Cruz, now a veteran of the US Air Force, was approached by a member of his unit struggling with the demands of deployment. The fellow airman had thoughts about harming themselves and came to Cruz privately for advice. 

“They were having a terrible time with the deployment and shared their vulnerability,” Cruz said. “They came to my room one night, and I told them, ‘It’s going to be okay. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to talk to me. I’m your friend.’”

At the time, Cruz was a new airman — familiarizing himself with the regulations and operations of military procedures. And from what he had seen so far, this kind of vulnerability was not voiced often in this setting. Quite the contrary, Cruz felt mental health issues were being silenced.

“Young men who were my age were disregarded if they had a mental health issue,” Cruz said. “They feared losing their job because you’d be stigmatized.”

Cruz didn’t see the stigma. He saw a friend in need. 

“My friend trusted me, and I helped them,” he said. 

Leadership asked Cruz to “look over” his friend until they could return to the United States and receive mental health care. Eventually they did, and the two still keep in touch today. But Cruz was disheartened by the situation. He decided then that it was his mission to help people in need. 

“There was no way my friend was going to get help while we were all deployed, which is unfortunate,” Cruz said. “We need mental health professionals in these types of settings. That was something that added to my aspirations to be a social worker.”

Advocating From a Young Age

Cruz’s journey to social work began even before his military service. As a child growing up in Washington Heights, he was raised by his mother and grandmother. Both towering figures in his life, the two had immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. 

“Their guidance helped me stay out of trouble throughout my whole life,” he said. 

But even the best guidance can’t prevent oppression and hardship. A young Cruz saw the inequalities around him. He noticed that his family didn’t seem to get the same things or have the same opportunities as others. 

Cruz couldn’t help but ask: Why do we seem to be struggling more than other people?

A Pivotal Moment

After high school, Cruz enrolled at John Jay College and majored in criminal justice. His family had a history in law enforcement so he thought it made the most sense. But once he got to school, Cruz found he had chosen the wrong path. He didn’t take to the coursework, and it discouraged him. 

“I hated it,” he admitted. “I failed out, and ran out of financial aid.”

It was a setback, but it was temporary. Soon, Cruz found a job in housekeeping in a Fifth Avenue store. He again experienced the disparities of wealth strolling through the extravagant aisles. 

“I’d be cleaning up these luxurious stores, and seeing this different lifestyle,” he said, “and then come back home at one or two in the morning and have to watch my back.”

This all came to a head when Cruz was held at knifepoint after leaving work one night. He was confronted by a man his age. Cruz believed the man was a gang member looking for someone else. When he realized Cruz wasn’t his man, he released him — but the trauma from the experience still lingers today. 

“I thought I was going to lose my life,” Cruz said. “The knife was up to my neck. After that, I wanted to get out of my situation.” 

That’s when Cruz decided to join the Air Force. He found the military as a way to “get out of his bubble.” 

“I thought, ‘School didn’t work out. This housekeeping thing isn’t working out,’” he said. “I needed to see more of the world.”

Cruz said his five years in the Air Force taught him many things, but the power of vulnerability stuck with him the most. Watching his friend seek help when they needed it had a powerful effect on Cruz. 

“Vulnerability to me was such a foreign concept [before joining the military],” Cruz said. “I found out that it’s OK to be vulnerable, and there’s strength in that. That was the biggest shift in my mindset.” 

Returning to Academia

Cruz re-entered academia with a purpose, ready to use his lived experience to tackle today’s societal issues of mental health. He enrolled at Lehmann College and earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in just two years. However, he had his sights set on social work. 

“I wanted to help people. I knew I would be in social work,” he said. “I got the background in psychology because I thought it would be a good marriage [with an M.S.W. degree].”

Cruz was drawn to social work due to the profession’s holistic approach to empowering individuals. He understood that a person’s environment plays into their mental well-being; he just wanted a profession that would teach him how to help. 

“Social workers are more engaged in trying to understand the individuals and community from various different perspectives,” he said. “There’s more to the person than what they’re telling you. There are environmental and cultural factors to consider.” 

A Welcoming Westchester Campus

Cruz enrolled as a student in Fordham’s Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program in the fall of 2022. A current Bronx resident, Cruz said he knew just by walking through GSS’s Westchester campus that it was the place for him. He needed to take a break from the city for his studying. 

“It’s extremely peaceful out there,” he said of the campus. “I grew up in a very loud environment in the Bronx. So, it’s nice to have some peace and quiet. It drew me in on the first day.”

fordham's westchester campus. students are walking in and out of the building, which looks modern, lined with windows, and complete with pillars that look like giant golf tees. the day is bright and sunny.

Fordham’s Westchester Campus

And it’s not just the scenic serenity that Cruz enjoys, it’s the campus community. Known for its smaller class sizes and cozy atmosphere, there is a shared pleasantry among the faculty, students, and staff in Westchester. 

“[GSS student services Assistant Directors] Laura [Sutter] and Kaitlynn [Toro] helped me with my educational path — they will call you and do your class schedule right there with you,” Cruz said. “Everyone there is super friendly.”

It wasn’t long before Cruz, a star student in his first semester, was approached by Associate Director of Admissions Stephen McGowan to represent GSS as a student ambassador. Ambassadors speak to hopeful M.S.W. candidates and help them navigate the admissions process, give them insight into their own experiences, and introduce them to a network of current students, faculty, and staff. 

However, Cruz knew an M.S.W. student has a busy schedule. Between coursework, homework, and fieldwork, he wasn’t sure he’d have the time to also be a student ambassador. He declined the offer. But a month later, he crossed paths with McGowan again at Westchester, and they spoke about it. When Cruz left McGowan’s office, he was a GSS student ambassador. 

“I knew after meeting Harvey he would be a great fit for the ambassador program,” McGowan said. “His natural ability to care for his fellow students and his supportive nature are qualities that we look for when trying to build a team. He has excelled and we are truly grateful to have him in the program.”

After finishing his first year at GSS, Cruz is glad McGowan reached out again. He described the joy of helping students through the admissions process, from the first inquiry up until the acceptance letter. He said it takes him back to the elation he felt upon his acceptance into the program.

It’s nice hearing the same joy in their voice that I had when I clicked on that link, and like the confetti came up [in the acceptance email]and the people that I care about the most were there to witness my achievement. It was an exciting day for me,” he said. “So, being able to share that with prospective students, I think, is my way of giving back to Fordham for what it has meant to me.”

Creating Confidence From Experience

Entering his second and final year of the M.S.W. program, Cruz feels an increasing sense of confidence. But it wasn’t always that way. 

Cruz said that classroom discussions during his first year could hit close to home. Lectures would contain case studies of clients with situations Cruz had actually experienced. His classmates would dissect the issues and discuss solutions. And although his colleagues didn’t know it, Cruz felt as though his life was a problem trying to be solved. It could get uncomfortable.

“I’d be reading a paper and it would talk about Section 8 [housing]or food stamps. I currently live in Section 8 housing and I’m on food stamps,” he said. “It was difficult seeing the class dissect this, and I’d think, ‘Whoa, I’m living some of the topics we’ve talked about.’ And I would hesitate for a couple of months to be vulnerable and talk about my experience.”

Cruz eventually learned that his experience was a monumental asset. He could relate to clients and help them in ways that someone without that shared background cannot. 

He has found it helps his classmates, too. As he felt more comfortable opening up in class, Cruz realized that sharing his story enables his fellow students to understand and become more effective social workers. 

“I realized I have a lot to share, so my confidence and my ability to be vulnerable in class grew,” he said. “At the end of the day, social work is a profession that needs people from all over the world. And if you’re coming in with real-life experience, that can only help people understand how to be a social worker. I can share my experience with them, and they can take something away from it.”

Looking Ahead

Thanks to a community of supportive classmates and the knowledge he’s gained from hands-on field internship experience, Cruz’s confidence is higher than ever heading into his second and final year. He spent his first-year internship with The Bronx Defenders, a public defender nonprofit, working with attorneys in its immigration practice. Cruz leaned on his bilingual skills and life experiences to form bonds with the clients seeking assistance. He remarked that representation is a necessity in the field for client comfortability and program outcomes. 

“I could see [clients]letting their guard down when they realized I could speak Spanish and relate to them on a cultural level,” he said. “That’s not only an advantage for me, but for my client. In this type of work, you want to make sure there isn’t a lot of room for error, because a lot of these clients were facing deportation.”

Cruz said the attorneys at The Bronx Defenders treated him like a colleague. He enjoyed the organization’s holistic, interdisciplinary approach, blending social work and legal skills for the best client outcomes. 

“The social worker mattered just as much as the attorney,” he said. “It was definitely a wonderful experience seeing how much I meant to the cases.”

Headed into his Specialist year, Cruz will complete his internship at the Veterans Affairs office in the Bronx. This time, he will be working in a more clinical setting, conducting group and individual therapy with veterans of the Vietnam War. This bodes well with most of the coursework Cruz will take this year, focusing mainly on the micro side of social work. 

Does Cruz want to pursue a more therapeutic role after graduation, or community-based macro work? He isn’t quite sure yet, but completing fieldwork in both areas allows him to learn more and explore his options. At the same time, he will be giving back to a community he is a part of at the VA, and making a difference in a population near and dear to him. 

“It’s a welcome challenge,” Cruz said. “I’m very excited. I know I need to be able to do these things professionally so that I can represent anyone who needs an advocate.” 

We asked Cruz what kind of advice he gives those considering a career in social work. He stressed the importance of lived experience as an intangible asset for social workers, and that everyone has something to offer to the field. 

“Believe in yourself. Know that you’re capable,” he said. “You chose this because you love working with communities or people. It’s something that’s within you. Everyone can learn from you. I’m sure of it.”


Comments are closed.