Meet Our Students – Melody Gomez – Helping to Create a Safer World
Major: Master of Social Work
Are you a first-generation college student?
If so, please share with us why you were inspired to go to college and why you picked UTEP.
I am not a first-generation college student. College was actually pushed on me as a necessary element of becoming an independent adult. I think this is why I was so resistant to education for a long time. I am, ironically, the first high school drop-out, and the one who thought I just wasn’t cut out for school. I went to an alternative school to catch up on credits when I was 16, and I met a teacher who told me something I had never heard in my entire life: “You have a voice. Use it. You matter.” He held space for me and helped me to amplify my own voice. This motivated me to re-enroll in school, and I finished my last year on time. He also told me that the structure of the alternative school was similar to the college experience, and that was the moment that I became excited to go to college.
I went to EPCC at first to dip my toes in. I was doing this while I was a single mother, and I took lots of little breaks. In 2007, I made a decision to go all in and finish. I went to UTEP because it was local, and because they made the process for enrollment easy. That doesn’t seem like a big gesture, but when you’re trying hard to balance things, that kind of support can be the difference between going to college and giving up on that trajectory.
What sparked your interest in the Master of Social Work Program?
I went into counseling shortly after graduating with my bachelor’s, but something did not feel quite right, so I did not complete the degree. I took some time off to try to find my place in the world and figure out what I wanted to do with my education. I was a special education teacher for a decade, and then I started a small non-profit called Square Peg Youth Empowerment. After a few years, I felt like I needed to grow as a professional and as an individual. I was learning in a vacuum, and I needed the opportunity to build and grow with others. I began looking into social work, as it seemed that both of my career experiences aligned with that field, and I had heard UTEP’s program was challenging and that it based its structure on cultural grounding and humility. This was what I was missing in my education.
What has been your greatest challenge academically so far, and what did you do to overcome it?
My sense of self and my self-doubt affect all areas of my life, especially in regard to academic growth. I may always need to fight that shadow of my former self who never had faith in her own capabilities, but my cohort and UTEP faculty and staff have provided buttresses in my journey to self-empowerment. This experience has made me see things about myself that I could work on: I am very assertive, but I could use my strength to practice discipline to hold space for others and be more patient. I lead naturally, as I am accustomed to working alone; however, leadership can be a position from which we uplift and amplify the individuals we work with so that we are all co-creating and moving forward. I needed to be surrounded by individuals who allowed that space for growth to evolve, and I am eternally grateful.
I still doubt everything I do. There are days I feel on fire, and days where I cannot write because it feels like my words mean nothing. But I have professors I have grown close to who will walk with me and provide encouragement, and peers who I have had the great honor of observing in their power. This is incredibly motivating and, best of all, humbling.
What has been the most interesting experience you have had in the MSW Program?
This program has given us so many opportunities to practice directly in the field. It has been impactful to see how often many of our professors and field mentors trust us to work so closely in micro and macro practice. Feeling valued and supported shouldn’t be a privilege, and the individuals within the program honor that.
Please share about your recent experience at the Texas Senate advocating against legislation that would restrict gender-affirming healthcare for minor children.
My youngest came out at 4 years old, and we began seeking support and resources immediately. My eldest came out shortly thereafter. My entire family are all members of the LGBTQIA community, and advocacy for our community is everything to us.
In my home, my circle of friends and family know that they are safe and accepted, but the story is different as soon as we step out the front door. It is so difficult to ensure that my children are safe and well, and we have faced discriminatory behavior in so many avenues, from places of political practice to the grocery store. My youngest asked me, “Mama, can you keep fighting for trans rights so maybe I can stop having nightmares about being murdered for existing?”
The support system of individuals in marginalized communities is sometimes all we have. So when HB 68, SP 1646, and their companions came out, I had to do something. Something more. What happens when the government tries to take away the final supports of the people? We’re easier to isolate and oppress. We had to fight back as a family.
The testimony was incredibly emotional. Hearing the anti-trans statements and the mockery and condescension from some of the senators was fury-inducing. Maintaining my composure for my child—who accompanied me—and for myself took every ounce of energy possible. Especially after the Senate threatened to block testimony if we did not “remain respectful.” On the drive home, my body hurt from the tension of restraint and from the fact that we even had to make the trip to defend our family, and I cried most of the way home. What made it all worth it was when my youngest asked me, “Mama, do you think my friends will believe me when I tell them that I went to the capital to change the world? I can’t believe we did that!”
How did you prepare for this experience? What advice would you give to other students who feel called to present to our legislators?
I did not have time to prepare mentally or emotionally or overthink the decision. The notice came out on Friday, and the Senate met on Monday at 9:00 am. We just went. I had been working on a statement with ACLU representative Adri Perez for over a month, as I had hoped to send in a video statement or written statement. This bill was too important to just watch.
On that note, I feel like you will know when something is calling you. And don’t worry about being “ready.” As it turns out, I changed my statement at the very last second to counter some of the information falsely reported before I spoke. Your passion will call, and you will feel it resonating. Act on it. Trust your intuition and speak up. What I found is that in our moment of vulnerability, so many others like us were there as a blanket of affirmation and support. Our amplified voices served as a beacon to others that we were all in this together. We met so many other families that were fighting too, and though it hurt to know these policies exist, it felt beautiful to know that we are never alone in the fight.
How do you feel this experience shaped you as a future mental healthcare professional?
Seeing the anguish on the faces of individuals who are actively being attacked by those who have a duty to protect the people was a brand new level of pain that I had not experienced before. I have a hard time compartmentalizing in order to provide unbiased and affirmative care; however, I am learning through experiences such as this that as a care provider, I cannot serve others unless I am serving myself. I tell my children often: practice radical self-love and self-care because if you can’t see yourself and respect yourself and remind yourself that you matter, it is going to be difficult to convince someone else that you matter. I am learning that I must fill my cup in order to be heavy enough to withstand the waves of hatred and discrimination that will try to wash our opposition away.
What are your professional aspirations?
I do not know. And I think that’s ok. Since I have stopped trying to control my journey, and let myself follow my intuition and passions, I have become more willing to experience new and previously intimidating things. I used to think I wanted to use this information to strengthen the foundation of my non-profit; and I may, I never know. But I feel like the experiences that I have had in policy have opened this Pandora’s box. Seeing the oppression and deliberate marginalizing tactics is something you cannot unsee. I think I may move more toward politics now, though I am not sure what that means. But the protective mama bear in me has been awoken, and I will now do everything in my power to destroy oppressive and colonial practices and policies to leave space for the creation of a safer world.
For more information about the Master of Social Work program, please visit: UTEP MSW Program