At age 40, Annia Cuebas-Colón knows she’s starting a new career later than most, yet she has never been more certain that she is right where she is supposed to be.
“Twenty years ago, I never in my life would have guessed this was going to be my calling,” said Cuebas-Colón, a Tannenbaum Scholar and final-year master’s of social work student in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work’s Winston-Salem Distance Education Program. “Today, being a social worker feels like home to me. For the first time in my life, I can say I really love who I am and what I am doing.”
Her journey has not been easy. Born in Puerto Rico, Cuebas-Colón graduated from high school in 1994 and enrolled in Iowa State University, where she was awarded a full-tuition scholarship. She had planned to study math, but her family encouraged her to pursue accounting. Like many other freshmen away from home for the first time, she enjoyed the independence, but she struggled academically. Rather than switching majors, she said she floundered for three years before dropping out, a decision she now knows started her down a more difficult path.
“I got pregnant,” she recalled. The father was a man she wasn’t sure she wanted a future with, but she said her family’s faith weighed heavily into the decision to marry him. Soon after, the couple moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, and Cuebas-Colón gave birth to a boy.
Then, life became more complicated. Her husband, who struggled with alcoholism, was also physically abusive, she said. Cuebas-Colón wrestled with what to do. She was unemployed at the time and didn’t own a car. She eventually found a bit of hope through a part-time job in a restaurant, where many of her co-workers looked a lot like her and faced their own challenges.
“Many of them were from Mexico and were undocumented,” she said. “I didn’t even know what that word meant at the time.”
However, in hearing her colleagues’ stories, including experiences with labor abuse and discrimination, Cuebas-Colón realized that she needed to help. “They worked hard and paid their taxes, but they had no rights. I really wanted to be a voice for them.”
Soon after, she found work in the front office of a community health clinic, a job that enabled her to leave her husband and that offered her more opportunities to do advocacy work with immigrants and others.
By 2005, Cuebas-Colón was in high demand from agencies needing employees who could speak Spanish and work closely with North Carolina’s still-growing Hispanic population. At one point, she juggled duties as a home visitor, community liaison and an intake worker with three different organizations. In each of these roles, Cuebas-Colón connected again with people in need, including young children and young women who were pregnant; some were dealing with traumatic experiences. One particular case with a client who was in psychological distress still shakes her. Cuebas-Colón sat for hours in an emergency room with the woman, who was uninsured.
“She was undocumented and treated so rudely,” she recalled. “They even threatened to call immigration on her.”
Cuebas-Colón eventually found her client help at another hospital, but the experience was a tipping point. To help create a more equitable environment, she knew she had to do more. Finishing her undergraduate degree was the next step, and she did just that in 2014, earning a bachelor of arts in cognitive studies from Ashford University’s online program. She graduates from UNC in May, an accomplishment she credits partially to the financial support she has received over the last three years. She was awarded the Dean’s and Adair scholarships in prior years.
“This money has helped me tremendously because I have a son in college now and these scholarships have helped me to pay for school so that I haven’t had to worry about finances,” she said. “I haven’t had to borrow that much money, and I haven’t had to work, which has put my mind at ease and helped me to focus on my studies.”
Following graduation, Cuebas-Colón plans to pursue her clinical license and hopes to find work with a nonprofit agency, perhaps one similar to her field placement in Greensboro, where she currently supports clients who are uninsured or under-insured with co-occurring disorders.
“The one thing I’ve learned since I started school is all the things that social workers do,” she said. “You’re a helper and caregiver, sister, mom, therapist, and teacher. You’re really like Wonder Woman. You have to have a broad range of skills. But for that reason, you can do anything. You can make it your own, and that’s what I love about social work.”
By Susan White