Jesus Cruz-Navarro gives back through Social Work

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Jesus Cruz-Navarro is standing in front of a Wayne State University backdrop and proudly holds up his diploma from Wayne State University

HFC alumnus Jesus Cruz-Navarro gave the student address at the Wayne State University School of Social Work commencement ceremony in May.

“During my commencement speech, I shared that many people doubted that a Latino with disabilities who was a member of the LGBTQ+ community from Southwest Detroit would bring home an associate degree from HFC, a bachelor’s degree in social work, and a master’s degree in social work from Wayne State,” said Cruz-Navarro. “Never let someone discourage you because of your identity. You deserve to take the rightful place that you and your village fought so hard for. I also talked about how it was important for all students to remember where they came from and to be proud of their culture and to remember those roots. They also have to take the time to invest and give back to others.”

He continued: “I want potential students and community members to know it really takes a village to raise someone. Everyone’s village will look different; some will have a lot of support, others very little. But it’s so important whenever you are successful that you remember to pay homage to all those who fought alongside you and before you, so that you would be able to get this moment of recognition and celebrate your accomplishments.”

HFC sociology instructor Brian Smith is proud of Cruz-Navarro.

“Jesus is an outstanding student with a strong social conscience and great compassion for those who are treated unjustly,” he said. “I was very fortunate to have him in class and am thrilled to know he graduated from Wayne State with his MSW.”

Seeing a need for social workers in the Latino/a community

The lifelong Detroiter remembered when he learned he would be speaking at WSU commencement.

“When I received the email, I started crying. I immediately shared it with my family. It was very emotional. It was also a great honor,” he recalled. “My father, who’s an immigrant, only had a 6th-grade education from Mexico. My mother made the ultimate sacrifice of stopping her own college-bound journey in order to have me and to also help my father on his pathway to American citizenship.”

Wayne State Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Dr. Anwar Najor-Durack is proud of Cruz-Navarro's success.

“Throughout his journey through the BSW and MSW programs, Jesus has shown significant personal and professional growth,” said Najor-Durack. “He was selected to speak for both his outstanding record of achievement and his involvement in the School of Social Work and campus activities.”

Cruz-Navarro spoke about what inspired him to become a social worker.

“I remember being on both sides: Someone who was in need of help and someone who was giving help,” he said. “It definitely made me pick social work as a career because I saw a need for social workers. I also knew that Latino/a social workers are few and far between. There is a need for them, especially those who not only speak Spanish and English but also know the community.”

First Latino/a social work student organization at WSU

During his time at Wayne State, Cruz-Navarro made history. Alongside fellow classmate Alondra Barajas, he cofounded the Unidad de Guerrero/a(s) (English translation: Unity of Warriors), a Latino/a social work student organization. They served as co-presidents for its inaugural year, which had 12 members. When deciding on a name for the group, they connected over their shared love of Latino/a rap music and wanted to capture the essence of the female artists who were pioneers in the field. Their words of empowerment and the unity they bring to their communities served as an inspiration for Cruz-Navarro and Barajas.

“In our undergrad program, Alondra and I could easily count the number of Latino/as in the program on the fingers of one hand, especially moving on to our master’s program. I was the only Latino male within my cohort for the bachelor’s and master’s programs. We knew things had to change,” said Cruz-Navarro.

Unidad de Guerrero/a(s) is the first of its kind at Wayne State. Although Cruz-Navarro and Barajas have graduated, they plan to return to the group in an advisory capacity next academic year.

“We wanted to ensure that students of Hispanic and Latino/a identity and/or heritage have a safe haven of hermanos y hermanas (brothers and sisters),” explained Cruz-Navarro. “The primary values of Unidad de Guerrero/a(s) include paying homage to all the Latino/as inside and outside the School of Social Work who fought to give our community representation and make space for us to have opportunities that many generations have only dreamed of.”

HFC taught Cruz-Navarro how to advocate for himself

The eldest of two sons, Cruz-Navarro is a graduate of César Chávez Academy High School in Detroit. He attended HFC through Detroit Promise, which offers any student graduating from any high school in Detroit a tuition-free path to an associate degree or technical certificate, along with a coach and a stipend. The Detroit Regional Chamber administers the Detroit Promise. HFC Detroit Promise Transition Specialist Reco Spencer mentored Cruz-Navarro.

"Jesus is caring, compassionate, driven, and motivated to lift up his community by any means necessary,” said Spencer. “I watched a young student walk into my office with magical ideas and big dreams, and then I witnessed a young man walk into my office with part of those dreams having come true and others on their way.”

Cruz-Navarro, who speaks English and Spanish, earned his associate degree from HFC in general studies/liberal arts. He transferred to Wayne State, where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work with a focus on interpersonal practice.

“One of the biggest deciding factors to attend HFC was I liked how HFC reserved a spot here on campus for Detroit Promise success coaches. They could see our entire student records in order to be able to fully assist us. I also heard great things about Assisted Learning Services. All HFC team members are fierce advocates who go above and beyond to empower student success. The ALS office helped me during my time as a student and have kept their doors open ever since. Before graduation, I met with ALS Counselor Adriza Caesar and (now retired counselor) Dr. Maureen Webster. They took the time to prepare me for disability accommodations at the university level and employment, going above and beyond for me,” explained Cruz-Navarro.

HFC faculty who had a positive impact on Cruz-Navarro include Smith, HFC psychology instructor Dr. Maria Sepulveda, and HFC religious studies instructor Dr. Joel Geffen.

“Dr. Sepulveda was one of the Latina professors on campus. She was helpful and made me feel accepted. The professors want you to succeed,” said Cruz-Navarro. “HFC was a great blessing in preparing me to transfer to Wayne State. It was nice to have smaller class sizes because you got more individualized attention. One of the things HFC helped me do was find my voice and gave me the ability to advocate for myself.”

“Truly inspirational”

Cruz-Navarro spoke about his decision to transfer to Wayne State.

“It was one of the very few universities working with Detroit Promise. I qualified for the Wayne Promise, which allowed me to transfer from HFC to Wayne State and still have my tuition covered,” he explained.

At Wayne State, Cruz-Navarro was involved with the Black and Latinx Males in Social Work Initiative, the Social Work Disability Justice Coalition, and Champions Aspiring to Make Pathways to Success (CHAMPS). He also completed internships at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Special Victims Unit and César Chávez Academy Lower Elementary and Middle School.

This summer, Cruz-Navarro began his new position as a screening therapist for New Oakland Family Centers in Southfield. He will be assigned to Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, where he will work with the youth in the ER who have mental health concerns.

“Whatever job title I have within the field of social work, one of the things that’s important to me is really being someone who others can count on, provide them with a sense of hope and unconditional love because often within the world and society, we highlight differences instead of uplifting others. That needs to change.”

Wayne State School of Social Work Acting Dean Dr. Debra Patterson worked with Cruz-Navarro many times.

“Jesus came to Wayne State prepared to make a difference,” she said. “He fully immersed himself in several student organizations, fostering a village of support for himself and his fellow Warriors. Jesus positively impacted youth and families in Southwest Detroit through his internship at César Chávez. Despite the rigor of our program, he found time to create Unidad de Guerrero/a(s). This student organization creates a safe and inclusive space for current and future Latinx social work students to build connections and a sense of belonging. Although Jesus has graduated, he plans to stay engaged with Wayne State to support our students in leading Unidad de Guerrero/a(s), ensuring that his legacy continues to thrive in the School of Social Work. His passion and commitment to make a positive impact is truly inspirational.”

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