At first, the barriers seemed insurmountable for Soraia de Oliveira, AM '18. Before she started at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA), she had some doubts. Today, she is a clinical social worker working with unaccompanied minors advocating for them.
Originally from Brazil, Soraia de Oliveira had completed a BA in Arts Management at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, and had subsequently been offered a professional internship at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her future seemed assured. However, she overstayed her visa and found herself undocumented. “It was a difficult time,” Oliveira recounts. “I was without papers, no visa, doing cleaning work, babysitting, and dreaming of one day applying to the University of Chicago.
Eight complicated years later, and following a move to Milwaukee, she became a U.S. resident.
By then, she was in her fifties, and English was not her first language. She wanted to return to school. Her ex-partner encouraged her to apply, telling her, “You have so much potential; you should follow your dreams of being a clinical social worker.” Despite her self-doubt, she applied to SSA and was accepted. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, she found herself moving back to Chicago to begin a new phase as a graduate student in the clinical program.
Though tough, the classes were also eye-opening. “Coming from a culture where professors are the ‘masters,’ it was amazing to be in classes where they listened to and encouraged your ideas.” Several classes made a lasting impression, starting with International Perspectives on Social Policy and Social Work Practice taught by Assistant Professor Leyla Ismayilova.
“Her classes gave us a broad perspective of social work internationally instead of only talking about the American perspective,” she elaborates. “During Professor Ismayilova’s classes, we could study case scenarios from countries like Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Colombia, and so on, from the perspective of social work and the social sciences.”
Similarly, the Human Rights class taught by Assistant Professor Yanilda González and Associate Professor Miwa Yasui was “instigating, challenging, and so diverse. We were able to apply our own fields of expertise utilizing a human rights lens.” Like Ismayilova’s class, the Human Rights class was interdisciplinary and enrolled students from other units on campus such as Psychology, the Pritzker School of Medicine, and the Harris School of Public Policy. These professors not only brought international perspectives to their work but also encouraged Oliveira’s interest in complex topics such as the impact of trauma on migrants.
For her first-year field placement, Oliveira worked for Refugee and Immigrants Community Services (RICS) at Heartland Alliance. There, Oliveira helped find jobs for immigrants primarily from countries in Africa, but also Afghanis, Syrians, and Kurds. During her second-year field placement, she worked at the Kovler Center for torture survivors. “At Kovler, I was doing one-on-one clinical sessions with the clients who had endured torture and other forms of abuse.” During this period, she was in SSA’s Global Social Development program of study and was awarded the French Travel Grant to live in Paris, France.
She worked with two organizations in Paris during the summer between her first and second year. With Utopia 56 (an NGO), she worked with asylum seekers from the South Sudan and Afghanistan, who were living on the streets. She also worked with refugees at the Center Minkowiska, where she did clinical assessments. Assigned eight to nine clients, she realized that she “loved the work.” It was then that she felt all the pieces coming together—her life path, her childhood interest in psychology, her decision to return to school—and she knew she’d made the right decision.
After SSA, she accepted a job in Chicago as a mental health clinical practitioner working with unaccompanied minors. She finds that her own history helps her better serve her clients. When she arrived in this country, she was already fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, but not English. “Early on,” she relates, “people would misunderstand me. Now, my clients see me as a black woman who speaks English as a second language, and they feel more comfortable with me. It makes a difference to them.”
Fundamentally, the SSA program changed her. “I was one person before SSA, and another after,” she states without hesitation. “For example, now I cannot watch a movie without analyzing it, seeing themes of social justice, social work, the broader social implications—it’s impossible not to apply a critical eye.” She’s thrilled when “her” kids—the unaccompanied minors she counsels—take these ideas and start applying them in ways that help them make sense of their chaotic circumstances.
She has also built a supportive community of friends and colleagues. “What I like about Chicago is that so many different kinds of people live here. There’s a lot of diversity. I have friends from Russia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Belize, and so on. There are people here from everywhere.”