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‘I Still Can’t Believe It’: Incoming MSW Candidate Earns Centennial Scholarship After 18 Years in Social Services


Juan Pena became an advocate at an early age. His mother came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1979 to make a better life. She was a single mother. She worked multiple jobs. All while continuing to adapt to this new country and language.

Pena accompanied his mother and younger sister to housing and public assistance appointments. He helped translate documents and interviews for his mother as she navigated the multiple processes to manifest that better life for herself and her children. He was six years old at the time.

“Looking back, I felt some sort of pride doing that,” Pena said. “I always enjoyed it. I was always like, this is really cool. I like helping.

Pena’s altruism carried with him into adulthood and his career. He currently works as a senior caseworker in the Family Reception Center of Good Shepherd Services, where he’s been since 2005.

“[Pena] began at Good Shepherd as a very young caseworker in our Transitions program just out of college, counseling youth and families struggling with substance use, making home visits throughout southwest Brooklyn, which includes both the neighborhood where he grew up, as well as the neighborhood in which he currently resides with his wife and two children,” said Michelle Yanche, CEO of Good Shepherd Services. “Juan is thrilled to finally be able to take this next step in his life.”

That next step will be pursuing his Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from Fordham GSS; Pena has been awarded the Centennial Scholarship from Fordham GSS and Catholic Charities and will begin the program in Manhattan this fall.

“I’m still blown away by it; I’m still in awe,” he said. “I was in shock. I really broke down [with]tears of joy.”

The Scholarship, created in 2018, honors the two institutions’ 100-year collaboration to help New Yorkers in need and provides full tuition for an MSW degree to the recipient. Pena is the sixth scholar selected under the 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.”

Pena was the first in his family to graduate from college. He said he is excited to return to school, albeit a bit nervous — but he has prepared for this moment.

“This is amazing, to go back in and continue the educational process,” he said. “I think it’s a big representation of me of my community. This opportunity does not come often. In sports, if they give you the ball, you’ve got to run with it — and I’m going to run with it.”

Pena is looking forward to building on the skills he has acquired during his time at Good Shepherd. He said that his positions working with individuals, families, and communities have been invaluable to his growth as a social worker.

“Being at Good Shepherd has enabled me to look deep within these families; there’s much more than what’s on the surface,” he said. “I’ve been very blessed. Every day is a learning experience.”

“Juan’s integrity and solid case planning work have been outstanding,” said Judith Socarras, program director at Good Shepherd and Pena’s direct supervisor. “He engages families in a manner that is caring, respectful, honest, and dependable. Juan is able to build rapport and trusting relationships with very vulnerable families. He is just as adept at providing accountability and structure to families that are challenging to engage.”

As an NYC native, Pena said Fordham has always been a force in his life – intentionally or not. He received his undergraduate degree from John Jay College (located just blocks away from Fordham’s Lincoln Center camps), and many of his coworkers and mentors at Good Shepherd are Fordham alumni. Pena called GSS alumnus Lee Turner, GSS ‘90, a “monolith of knowledge” and one of his “closest companions.”

“It’s always been the Rams; I can’t wait to buy my Fordham sweatshirt, t-shirt, running shorts—all that stuff,” Pena said. “I want to be one of those guys. This is an exciting moment.”

Suffice it to say, Pena is ready to be a Ram. As he heads into his first year of coursework, he’s taking his son’s advice about hard work (which runs in the family).

“My son is always talking about being on the grind. This is going to be a grind,” he said. “I cannot wait.”


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