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MSW Graduate is a Warrior for Community Change

  • Alumni
  • Practice

Since she was 15 years old, Mayra Zaragoza, MSW ’24, has been helping youth find connection and a sense of belonging. Born and raised in the North San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, where gang life was prevalent within her community and in her own family, she is now a graduate of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Zaragoza decided early on that the path of so many of her peers and family members was not the life she wanted. Instead, with a wisdom that few adolescents possess, she turned her focus on how she could create change for her community. 

At the age of 12, one of her cousins, who was more like a brother, was incarcerated. An active gang member who always dissuaded her from becoming involved, his loss to the incarceration system, where he still remains today, impacted her greatly. Zaragoza was determined to become a person that could help others in her community from falling into the same destructive pattern — to be someone that could have changed the trajectory of her cousin’s life.

She started participating in youth programs, including one at her church. 

“What I noticed was that not a lot of them were really focused on helping young people explore other ways to connect to themselves, apart from spiritually,” Zaragoza said. “There was still something missing there. It didn't feel fully connected.”

So, in 2007, at only 16, Zaragoza began Young Warriors, a mentoring program for youth that focuses on healing for self-empowerment. When she started the program, she was just gathering peers on a weekly basis as an alternative to other support groups. She had no idea that mentorship would be key to its evolution. 

She created the meetings as a space for peers to talk about things going on at home, create art together and explore where they might fit in the world. Their motto: Every youth is a warrior of their own struggle.

“If we didn't fit in with the academic or the sports folks, or the gangs or the drugs, we didn't know where we belonged,” Zaragoza said. 

The power of mentorship

As a teen, Zaragoza participated in a college preparatory program where she met her first two mentors, Fernando Rejon, executive director of the Urban Peace Institute and Lucia Torres, executive director of Las Fotos Project, who learned how committed Zaragoza was to creating new opportunities for youth in her community. Rejon and Torres introduced her to Luis J. Rodriguez, co-founder of Tia Chuchas Cultural Centro and author of “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” a 1993 autobiographical book in which Rodriguez recounts his days as a member of a street gang in Los Angeles. Zaragoza was a fan, and Rodriguez’s mentorship helped her to better understand the culture of gangs and outreach, and reshape what Young Warriors could offer to the community.

Zaragoza led Young Warriors for 15 years, from 2007 until 2022. She assisted community youth with college applications and navigating through higher education. However, while she was helping her peers to change their lives through education, Zaragoza was hesitant to apply herself. She struggled with a fear of failure and had no role models in her family whom she could turn to for advice.

Thankfully, her mentees stepped in, challenging her, urging her to not let the opportunity pass her by. She finally gave them her word that she would apply, and became the first in her family to attend college.

During her undergraduate studies, Zaragoza continued her work with youth through Young Warriors, helping them build social emotional confidence and self-esteem. 

“I help young people understand that no one is going to come and save you,” Zaragoza explained. “You have to be the ones who make those changes. If you want to be more confident, you have to be around people that are confident. If you want to be the cycle breaker in your family, you have to be willing and courageous enough to be different.”

A winding road to USC

Zaragoza was first introduced to the idea of attending USC through Robert Hernandez, assistant teaching professor at USC Social Work. 

“I was 18 years old and Robert told me I belonged at USC,” Zaragoza said. “That was the first time someone told me I belonged in such a prestigious school and deep down, I believed it.” 

Hernandez, an expert in vulnerable youth populations, learned about the work Zaragoza was doing with Young Warriors through Rodriguez. According to Zaragoza, Hernandez was instrumental in mentoring her and the youth in Young Warriors to understand how environmental injustice plays a role in the formation of gangs.

“Mainly, how we end up falling on those tracks, not because it’s something that we want to do but rather because it’s what we have access to in our communities,” Zaragoza said. 

Hernandez continued to urge Zaragoza to consider a graduate degree in social work from USC. Initially, she was resistant to pursuing social work because it carries a stigma within her community. But the more she worked with Hernandez, she began to see that she needed to fully understand the systems that held her community back before she could actively transform them. She realized that social work had chosen her. 

After a decade of encouragement from Hernandez, she finally decided she was ready for USC. In 2021, Zaragoza began the Master of Social Work program.

“Mayra is a champion,” Hernandez said. “She is the definition of resilience. She models what a leader is, not forgetting about her community, challenging herself by placing herself out of her comfort zone to be what Ghandi instructs, ‘the change she would like to see in this world.’”

Zaragoza spent her MSW-required practicum placement with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (LA DCFS). She qualified for the federally-funded LA DCFS stipend program, which provided funding toward her USC tuition and a staff position for a minimum of one year after receiving her degree. 

“To properly know how to best guide people in the systems involved, I really wanted to understand that world of DCFS,” Zaragoza said. “No system is perfect, all systems need work, but they're there for a reason. They have a critical function.”

Zaragoza feels she can now mentor young people to understand why support systems are in place, and how important it is for these systems to be involved in ensuring the overall safety of children and adolescents. 

Combining all of her past experience with her new position at LA DCFS, Zaragoza is now focused on how to improve the systems that are in place to help vulnerable youth. She wants to ensure people understand that the only way to break unhealthy and unsafe cycles is at the community level.

“Obtaining her MSW from the USC School of Social Work brings her a step closer in realizing her dreams of pursuing youth justice where all youth have a chance to flourish,” Hernandez said.

After completing her next year with LA DCFS, Zaragoza hopes to parlay her experience into joining the Los Angeles County Department of Youth Development (DYD), established in 2022, as a development program manager. She has also set her sights on continuing her education with a Doctor of Social Work from USC and perhaps, one day, open a private practice. But everything always circles back to improving the community, finding ways to lift people up and transform the environments they live in and which influence their decisions. 

“Our communities are a reflection of ourselves,” Zaragoza said. “If we want to care more for ourselves, then we have to find it in nature and in other ways that allow us to see the beauty that we all carry inside.”

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)