By Meghan Schiereck ’20
Paying it forward and giving back to past, present, and future generations has always been a priority to Dr. Jayleen Galarza in her social justice and service initiatives. An associate professor in the Social Work and Gerontology Department, Galarza recently earned a TRIO Achiever Award for her work as East Stroudsburg University’s (ESU) first AmeriCorps-VISTA member, where she focused on anti-poverty measures.
Galarza was introduced to ESU in eighth grade as a member of Upward Bound, a federally funded education program. Students from low-income families whose parents have not graduated from college are invited to the program with the goal of developing a stronger academic background. Upward Bound and ESU gave Galarza a chance to refine her skills and explore the world of academia.
Growing up, Galarza never imagined becoming a scholar, author, and social justice advocate. In fact, she initially wanted to be a flight attendant. But once she was selected for Upward Bound, her goals of higher education weren’t so far out of reach.
“Neither of my parents went to college. It wasn’t really on my radar,” she said. “The summer before my freshman year of high school, I started with Upward Bound. I did it for four years. Six weeks in the summer, every summer, you’d take classes during the week. We had tutoring and mandatory study halls—it wasn’t all play. It was acclimating us to the college experience in order to help us better understand what we wanted to do.”
Galarza chose to pursue English at ESU. She then earned two master’s degrees—one in clinical social work and one in human sexuality—and later got her PhD in human sexuality, all from Widener University.
“Upward Bound exposed us to all kinds of different experiences that we might not have had otherwise. During the school year, we would go on Saturdays. I went to school a lot more than other folks did.”
In college, Galarza was heavily involved with social justice initiatives, an interest that she gained from her time in Upward Bound. The program encouraged her to think about service and about giving back, which led to her work with AmeriCorps. Galarza said she puts service at the forefront of her life.
“People invested in me. How do I invest in others?
“I always stayed connected with the folks who were foundational in shaping who I was becoming. I haven’t lost that connection,” Galarza said. “I’ve always made a commitment to the idea of service and social justice, which are two core values of social work. That’s how I model my life.”
The TRIO Achiever Award recognizes Upward Bound program graduates who made an impact in their field. Galarza worked on several service-learning projects that were designed to address poverty in the ESU community. In her graduate studies and through her career, she worked with adolescents and community health education.
“This is something that sparked my passion for human sexuality, but also sex education. I’ve always tried to find ways to improve service and practices to the most marginalized of communities. I provided trainings to staff on LGBT matters, and started student groups on sexuality.”
“I was really passionate about that need to make more inclusive spaces, not just for sexuality and gender minorities, but also racial and ethnic minorities.”
Inclusion, sex, and gender is Galarza’s focus, who is the co-chair for the LGBT+ concerns committee at SU. “It’s really followed me through my life, in my career, and in academia.
“Representation matters. One of the things I struggled with as an undergraduate going into the college atmosphere, was not really having a personal foundation of what that would be like. While Upward Bound helped with that, I still didn’t see people like myself.” Galarza said. “When I saw folks who mirrored some of the identities that I held, it was important for me. It helped me feel connected. I’m very mindful of creating safe, inclusive spaces, and part of that is representation.”
For Galarza, a big part of this is being open about who she is—a queer-identified, Latina who is a first-generation student. “I want spaces to be inclusive, safe, and accessible.” Recalling her days as a student, she wishes she could have connected with someone like herself.
“Accessibility is huge. This is about accessibility for everyone.” The work she does helps to foster accessibility and inclusivity for everyone on campus.
“There’s upward mobility. You can expand on the dreams you have. This can be accessible.” Galarza said about higher education and first-generation students.
But, she added, there’s a caveat. “There needs to be people along the way—key people who are genuinely invested in you. I try to be one of those people for the students I interact with. It has to be a coalition of people. I don’t think I would be where I am if I didn’t have people to invest in me.”
Galarza acknowledges her privilege to have been selected for Upward Bound, and that not everyone is so lucky. “The odds are stacked against you in a lot of ways (as a first-generation student).” Galarza said. “I saw what was modeled to me, and that’s how I want to model myself as a professor and an advocate. I want to offer that to other people. That’s my goal.”
Meghan Schiereck ’20 is an intern for SU Magazine.