World of Difference

Growing up in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood as the oldest of four, Teresa Valdivia has been helping others for as long as she can remember.

“I think that the oldest child,especially in Latinx households, is often their parents’ right hand,” explains Valdivia, who graduated from St. Augustine College (SAC) with a Bachelor of Social Work degree in 2021. “So, from a very young age, I was taught that you help those who are unable to help themselves.”

While it would be years before Valdivia would even hear the term “social worker,” from that moment, helping people became her mission.

“I was also influenced by my mother as she began her career as an interpreter for early intervention,” she adds. “I would see her passion for helping underserved families who struggle due to the language barrier but also the systemic barriers they face living in this country with a disabled child.”

Valdivia’s path to St. Augustine came from a life-changing conversation she had with her husband about the need to set an example for their blended family of seven by getting educated. She had already completed an Associate of Arts degree at another city college but her husband, who had been a teen parent in a previous marriage, had dropped out of high school to provide for his son.

“After he completed his GED program, he was offered a free college course.

When he registered for that, he echoed the same words I once shared with him— ‘It’s important for our children to have parents who value education’,” Valdivia explains. “That’s when he told me about the Bachelor’s Degree programs that St. Augustine offered. And since he had done his part, it was only right that I did my part as well, so I went in—eight-and-a-half months pregnant—and registered for the Social Work program.”

She enrolled with a two-year plan.

“I began my first class when my daughter was four weeks old,” says Valdivia, recalling that on her second day of class, a SAC professor encouraged students to apply for one-year MSW programs in the area. “Never in a million years did I think of pursuing any other degrees, much less a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW), but she sure did plant the seed on Day Two of me being in St. Augustine.”

Valdivia worked hard to juggle school and family life, graduating right on time.

“The teachers at St. Augustine were all so personable, which made learning feel like a partnership—which I can attest is not something you will find in every university, unfortunately,” she says, pointing to a particular experience she had with SAC professor Dr. Lisa Hines, who gave her an internship opportunity after another one suddenly fell through. “I was devastated and felt like all my hard work was over. I called her to inform her holding back tears. I know she could tell and remember her telling me, ‘Teresa, we got this; I have a position for you’.”

Her internship working on a job training program at the Small Business Education Center (SBEC) was just what she needed to grow in her field, gaining experience that would then lead her to a MSW program at Dominican University. However, Dr. Hines’ gesture resonated on a deeper level.

“As a social worker, clients need us in their most vulnerable of states. They need the ‘we got this’ and need it to come from a genuine place,” says Valdivia. “As social workers, as much as we wish we could have a magic wand, we don’t, but having clients know they are not doing it alone can make a world of difference.”

Today, having just earned her MSW, she is preparing for a new chapter in her journey—one she credits St. Augustine College for making possible.

“I will begin working for Chicago Public Schools as a School Social Worker in August,” she says, adding that she now sees a PhD in her future, something she would have never imagined as a child in Little Village. “I look forward to one day being a college professor and teaching those who have made the decision to continue their studies and give back to this rewarding field. Education makes all the difference—for our children, but also for our communities. I am forever grateful to St. Augustine for believing in me and showing me how to believe in myself.”