Community Engagement Leads Global Public Health, Social Justice Alumna on Career Path
Angelica Gonzalez Almanza ’23 is glad that she listened to her English teacher at Vintage High School in Napa. During her college search, he suggested that Angelica check out Dominican, where his daughter was already attending. Dominican would be, he said, the perfect fit.
“I gave thought to what he was saying. After all, he had taken the time to get to know me as a person,” Angelica says.
Having already experienced the transformative impact of a mentor, Angelica focused her college search on smaller universities that promised a high level of personal attention. Staying close – but not too close – to her family also was a priority.
“I visited the Dominican campus my junior year of high school and immediately fell in love with Dominican – all that green space and those beautiful buildings. I also liked that it was far enough from home so that I could go and have a college experience, but whenever I wanted to come back home I was only about an hour away.”
Looking back at her first year, Angelica recalls entering Dominican feeling unsure. Four years later, Angelica’s confidence shines through as she talks about her Dominican experience. Angelica graduated with a full skill set, gaining hands-on experiences in data analysis, strategic planning, community engagement, organization, statistics, and digital literacy. The research Angelica conducted for her senior capstone – along with her community connections – led to her current role with the City of San Rafael, coordinating a tech-equity project focused on improving digital equity for residents in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood.
“The work I did at Dominican and the contacts I’ve made in the community have allowed me to build meaningful connections in areas that I want to pursue later. I have had a great experience both inside and outside Dominican.”
“Without these experiences I would not be as successful getting a job right after college. I learned to put myself out there – and this is something I never would have thought I could do. The mentors I had at Dominican pushed me to become who I have become.”
Indeed, Angelica, who double majored in both Global Public Health (GPH) and Social Justice, embraced every opportunity that came her way as an undergraduate. Today, these experiences continue to inform her work as an intern with the City of San Rafael and as the Digital Literacy and Family Engagement Coordinator for local nonprofit Parent Services Project (PSP), an organization informed by the belief that access to high-quality internet and the knowledge to use it, is a human right.
Angelica’s plan coming into Dominican was to major in biology in order to prepare for medical school and a career that would allow her to help others. But, after taking a cultural anthropology course with Dr. Jennifer Lucko, Angelica saw that an MD was not the only path to a career in the medical field.
“Cultural anthropology sparked my interest in public health because I realized that I could actually help people before they became sick by looking into the causes of why they became sick.”
Angelica’s desire to engage with her wider community shaped her first year at Dominican after she enrolled in a Service-Learning course. The experience eventually led her to add a minor in Community Action and Social Change and – the following year – a major in Social Justice. Her sophomore year, Angelica was named a Service-Learning EDJE (Education Dedicated to Justice and Equity) Fellow. In this role, she advanced her community engagement, working with San Rafael nonprofits Ritter Center, Canal Alliance, and PSP.
It was through a community project with Canal Alliance that Angelica gained first-hand insight the importance of observation and active listening, as well as the impact a united community can have. She worked with Voces del Canal on an advocacy project to improve safety by increasing public lighting throughout the Canal neighborhood. Under the guidance of Dr. Lucko, Angelica and other Spanish bilingual Dominican students worked alongside the Voces del Canal members as they advocated for these – and other – Canal neighborhood priorities.
During the pandemic, Angelica took on a leadership role with PSP, helping to mobilize other bilingual students to work with members of the Latinx community – primarily parents – seeking assistance with digital literacy. Demand was particularly strong during the shelter-in-place ordinance, when parents and their children relied on the Internet in order to access homework assignments and communicate with teachers.
The San Rafael school district purchased 2,500 Chromebooks for students to use at home during the pandemic. However, many parents and caregivers desperately needed to gain the digital skills and knowledge that would allow them to take a leadership role in their children’s education.
“A lot of families did not know how to navigate Chromebook,” Angelica recalls. “There were students who had many missing assignments because they were relying on parents to turn in the work, but the parents didn’t know how to engage with teachers and school staff.”
Angelica formed strong attachments with the parents, sharing stories as she explained how to work the technology. When the Service-Learning placement with PSP ended the first semester of sophomore year, Angelica continued teaching the digital literacy courses the following semester. In Spring 2021, when a part-time position opened up with PSP, Angelica was initially hesitant to apply, worried that the fact she was still a student would make her ineligible.
“My advisor said that I should give it a shot because I had such a strong connection with the program’s director – my mentor.”
Angelica submitted her resume, cover letter, and digital portfolio and landed an interview with the PSP’s CEO and program manager. Two weeks later she found out she had the job.
Angelica worked with PSP throughout her junior and senior years, collaborating with parents whose students were enrolled in both the San Rafael and Novato school districts. When in-person classes resumed, she also helped families navigate a new student/parent portal introduced by San Rafael schools to communicate with families and track student grades and attendance.
“The community was not ready for all these changes happening one after another,” she says of the portal launch. “Even faculty and staff were having trouble navigating the system.”
At the beginning of the school year, Angelica was working more than 30 hours a week. By October things began to slow down and Angelica could focus on her senior capstone, which had to meet the requirements of both her GPH and Social Justice majors.
With approval from her supervisor at PSP, Angelica’s capstone project focused on the digital divide in Latinx communities and limited parental involvement due to the lack of digital access (which includes digital literacy) as the pandemic increased dependence on technology and exacerbated the digital divide.
“My senior year I gave the capstone work everything I had. It was a struggle at the beginning because no one had done a dual capstone in Global Public Health and Social Justice. This was one project with two lenses that I had to merge together. For Global Public Health I had to be precise with the data and the literature review, while for Social Justice I needed to tell a story about why this is an issue"
After working with both her GPH and Social Justice advisors, Angelica created a rubric of how the work would come together in order to meet both major’s requirements.
Her hard work paid off – and landed her an internship.
Angelica’s Service-Learning mentor Julia van der Ryn, executive director of Dominican’s Center for Community Engagement, connected Angelica with the City of San Rafael’s civic engagement manager who, after reading the capstone, saw an opportunity for the work to be used to enhance a city project seeking grant support to fund projects in the Canal neighborhood. One of those projects was to provide Canal residents with access to fast and reliable Internet.
Angelica’s commitment to social justice, her research focused on digital literacy, and the connections she had with both Canal Alliance and Voces del Canal made her the perfect hire.
Today, Angelica is working with the City to collect data via surveys and working with community organizations to collect testimony. Angelica also helped to develop methodology for the surveys.
“I am working as an advocate for the community in San Rafael,” Angelica says. “It is important to show community members that we are willing to work with them and to take advice on what needs to happen.”
The internship is giving Angelica significant experience working in local government, and she is planning to apply for a full-time position either with the City or the County of Marin. Longer term, Angelica’s goal is to earn a master’s degree in order to advance her work focused on the intersection of community engagement and public health.
Dominican’s impact on Angelica was transformative. Students beginning their own Dominican journey should make it a priority to get out of their comfort zone and explore new interests, she says.
“Dominican is what you make of it. If you decide to get involved then that can really shape your Dominican experience,” Angelica says. “Put yourself out there and do what you are passionate about. Network and make connections. I’m so grateful I was in the Service-Learning program, because they gave me so many opportunities that many of my peers at other schools did not get to have.”