Finding a Rewarding Career Path

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Julianna Velazquez had an associate’s degree and was working as an administrative assistant at Pfizer in Groton, CT when she lost her job to mass layoffs in 2004. She took a part-time job as a paraprofessional in special education, and knew she wanted to pursue a career that made a difference.

“It took losing my job, working somewhere else, and witnessing the need in families to realize what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to do something that would help people, but wasn’t quite sure what it was. I enrolled in UConn’s Bachelor of General Studies program and began taking classes in human services. UConn gave me the opportunity to explore different topics, rule out the things I couldn’t see myself doing, and figure out who I was as an individual and what I really wanted to do.”

The BGS program was ideal for Julianna because it allowed her to fit her education into her busy schedule and accepted her previous college credits.

‘I was working full time, and raising three children ages 17, 15 and 8 years old,” she said. “The BGS program was really flexible and worked with my schedule. My husband and I worked out a schedule where I was able to take courses online, in the evenings, and on Saturday mornings. The BGS program also accepted all my credits from Three Rivers (Community College) and from the University of Phoenix, which I attended for a short time.”

Whenever working, raising a family, and pursuing her bachelor’s degree seemed to be too much, Julianna met with Dr. Nancy Steenburg, her BGS counselor at the UConn-Avery Point campus.

“Nancy was amazing,” said Julianna. “She had a way to reassure her students and was there to support me when I felt overwhelmed. I found a way to break it down so that it didn’t seem so overwhelming. She was a great help.”

Although Julianna was 36 when she enrolled in the BGS program, she never felt out of place in the classroom. “I felt comfortable in all the classes,” she said of her classes that included traditional age students, as well as students her own age and older. “It was a nice balance. It was great because you could hear different perspectives and could understand where students were coming from (why they thought the way they did) because of the generation they came from.”

By the time Julianna finished her studies at UConn, she knew she wanted to work in a nonprofit. Two weeks after earning her BGS degree in May 2009, she began graduate studies at Northeastern University, majoring in Nonprofit Management and specializing in human services. After earning her master’s degree in April 2011, she was hired as Director of Development and Community Support at Waterford Country School (WCS), a nonprofit human services agency that offers a wide range of programs and services for children and families.

As the community representative and fundraising professional at WCS, Julianna finds grants and community support for activities to supplement the School’s programs, which include residential treatment; special education; experiential education; therapeutic foster care; emergency shelter; a safe home and a group home; as well as family preservation and reunification.

She secured a grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut for the WCS farm, and the support of a Boy Scout troop, which will build a flight cage for birds. “The kids on campus help with the farm as well,” Julianna said. “The animals are therapeutic for our residents who range from ages 3 to 19 years old and have experienced trauma or come from bad situations.” A grant from Charter Oak Federal Credit Union enabled the School’s shelter program to set up a community partnership with Brio Academy so pre-adolescents and teenagers can improve personal hygiene and grooming and learn how to take better care of themselves.

Julianna credits UConn’s Bachelor of General Studies program for setting her onto a career path that she finds challenging and rewarding. “Earning my BGS degree was important because finding a rewarding job is a challenge with only a high school diploma,” she says. “I’m willing to go out in the community and ask for anything because it’s not for me. It’s for these kids that come to Waterford Country School with trauma and pretty much nothing—one suitcase. It’s humbling to be here and to be able to help in any way.”