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The Brave and Important Story of Yolanda Castillo

Yolanda Castillo

As we wrap up Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (July). We would like to introduce you to Yolanda Castillo, a criminal justice student at NOVA who has utilized the many experiences of her upbringing to help lift those around her. She has continuously volunteered to help others and is now a leader at a “Celebrate Recovery” program that is managed by New Hope Church in Lorton, Virginia.

Yolanda continues to be an advocate. She knows that no matter where someone comes from, they should continue to believe in themselves and help others. Here, she reflects on her own background and talks about mental health in communities of color.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background:

I grew up in the Mt. Vernon area and had a lot of difficulty in high school. I struggled with concentration and focus so I was initially very intimidated by college. My parents did not go to college, so it was not really encouraged. I was taught that you have to work for what you want but not necessarily by going to college.

After high school, I worked in childcare and made minimum wage, so it was hard to make ends meet. I experienced significant traumatic events in my early twenties that derailed my life for many years. I learned that I was “Bi-Polar” and had to learn how to manage that along with previous trauma. I went to therapy and continued to work on my life issues through a program called “Celebrate Recovery” at my local church, New Hope, in Lorton, Va. It really helped me break free from previous hurtful experiences and from habits/unforgiveness I harbored. I finally felt free and ready for a new chapter in my life.

After going through all I have gone through, I knew I needed to reach out to others to help them have hope. It's important to let others know they are not alone, and that they don't have to be ashamed of struggling with mental health issues. In Latina families, you are taught to just suck it up and keep moving forward. You aren't supposed to show weakness or admit you struggle with mental health issues. I want to break the stigma and help those from all backgrounds know that it's ok to seek help.

In my case, I had to learn that it is not about being weak, it's a chemical imbalance not caused by something you can control. It is my hope that many others will learn this, too, and realize they are not less than anyone else. It is so important for so many communities, especially communities of color, to recognize the struggles and strengths of one another. I’ve worked hard to bring awareness to what I’ve overcome, and I hope others can do the same.

What brought you to NOVA?

In having family members with drug addictions, which is what led me to the “Celebrate Recovery” program, I decided I wanted to pursue a Certification for Substance Abuse Counselor Assistant (C-SAC-A). I am a much older student (I graduated in 1989), so I was nervous to start. I completed my CSAC-A but after my internship I realized I wanted to do more.

What are you studying or plan to study at NOVA?

After speaking with Dr. Carolyn Lorente, who led the Women Helping Women event at NOVA, I decided to pursue a Psychology degree.

I started taking more classes at NOVA and decided to meet with my advisor to narrow down what I should do next. Derrick Doctor helped me decide to pursue a Social Work degree and planned to transfer to George Mason. After taking classes for that degree, I decided that I really wanted to pursue Criminal Justice instead. I had served for Grand Jury Duty and really enjoyed it.

I also have a passion to help victims of sex trafficking. I want to work for the International Justice Mission, an organization that combats sex trafficking. The organization came to my church and left a huge impression on me. So, I changed my major again.

I am currently taking Criminal Justice classes, and thankfully, a lot of my classes will transfer. I have maintained a 4.0 GPA while at NOVA since 2016. I recently took an Art History class with Professor Sarah Liberatore and she encouraged me in my goals and told me about the mentorship program.

I am a leader in the “Celebrate Recovery” program, and I have been mentoring women there since 2013. I think it's so important to have other women you can look up to gain valuable information to help you achieve your goals, and to just be your cheerleader along your journey.

Tell Us About Your Experience at NOVA; ie, professors you’ve liked and friends you’ve met 😊

I have met some amazing women (and men) who have inspired me in so many ways. One was from Afghanistan and shared about her experience with our military. She told me how they brought her family teddy-bears and it really helped her because she was so afraid. It also made her see the United States in a good way. I was so impressed with her strength and how she was pursuing her degree after all she went through. I have met such diverse students, and it's nice to learn from women from different cultures.

I have enjoyed pretty much all my Professors at NOVA. The ones that stand out are Professor Chandell Miller, my main substance abuse professor, Dr. Lorente, Professor Liberatore and Dr. Marshall. They were very encouraging and helpful with any questions I had along the way.

What would you tell a student coming to NOVA?

My advice for those of you just starting at NOVA is to take advantage of your advisor as soon as possible. Please research as much as you can about the degree you want to pursue and, if possible, volunteer doing the work you want to do just to make sure that is what you want to do. Do your best to only take the classes you need. I made the mistake of taking several classes I didn't need or ones that were not transferrable. Always ask about scholarships and look for them online as well. Please utilize time management and keep track of assignments due and papers/projects.

I have not graduated yet, but I plan to do all I can to help people. That is what I love doing most and it doesn't feel like working.

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the largest public institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls nearly 80,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield (Medical Education Campus) and Woodbridge, through NOVA Online and high school dual enrollment. We offer more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs to help our students reach their academic and professional goals through university transfers and access to the most in-demand careers. At NOVA, we strive to ensure that every student succeeds, every program achieves and every community prospers. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, visit our website, www.nvcc.eduor call 703.323.3000.