Jessica Castillo is glad she had a mentor growing up. She was always a good student, but the relationship she’d built with her mentor gave her that “extra push” and confidence she needed.
“My mentor gave me the reassurance that I can do this,” she said. “I can go to college.”
Castillo went on to graduate in 2016 from St. John’s University with her undergraduate degree. She got a job working as a receptionist at Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring, the very place she’d gone to as a young adult to find a mentor. And now, Castillo has been awarded the Centennial Scholarship Award from Fordham GSS and Catholic Charities, and will begin her Master of Social Work program in Manhattan this fall.
“When I received the news I was totally speechless,” Castillo said. “It means everything to me. I have been wanting to go back to school, and just the fact that I was chosen, and am able to do this with a scholarship, and be part of the Centennial legacy, means a lot.”
The Scholarship, created in 2018, honors the two institutions’ 100-year collaboration to help New Yorkers in need, and provides full tuition for a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree to the recipient. Castillo is the fifth scholar selected under the five-year program.
“Catholic Charities has been an important partner in the mission of the Graduate School of Social Service from its inception in 1916,” Debra McPhee, dean of GSS, said in a past interview. “The Centennial Scholarship is a wonderful representation of our historic and shared commitment to service and community building throughout New York City and the region.”
Castillo still works at Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring, now as a Research and Development Manager. She said she wants to give back to the community that gave her so much.
“I think it’s really important, because I know my mentor made a difference in my life,” Castillo said. “I think having that extra someone is really special and really important.”
Castillo said she wants to use the skills she learns through her MSW program to impact the work she does at Bigs & Littles, where she will continue to work while she completes her coursework part-time. Bigs & Littles CEO and Executive Director Vidhya Kelly, LMSW, says it is this kind of dedication to the organization’s mission that makes Castillo a perfect candidate for both the scholarship and an MSW degree.
“Jessica stands out as a wonderful example of someone who has personally benefited from social services as a Little Sister through Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring, and has made it her life’s work to pay it forward,” Kelly said. “Now as a key staff member within our organization, I am constantly impressed by her compassion, work ethic, grit, and initiative in staying well informed to be the best professional that she can be. I am confident that she will be a credit to the social work profession as she looks forward to completing her MSW at Fordham University.”
A first-generation Mexican-American, Castillo understands the struggles of undocumented families living in NYC. She thinks her ability to relate to youth going through a similar experience will not only make her a great social worker, but help many children who need it.
“I think I can relate to them on a different level. Growing up and having an undocumented family, those struggles are something that I dealt with and there’s other kids here in New York City dealing with that as well,” she said. “I just want to help alleviate some pain and trauma, the way that the social workers at Bigs & Littles did for me.”