Brenda in cap and gown

Brenda Velarde: Embracing Her Voice and Giving Back to Her Community

Brenda Velarde understands what it’s like to have imposter syndrome. 

A Newark native who graduated this spring from Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Social Justice as part of the Honors Living & Learning Community (HLLC), Velarde is the only child of parents who emigrated to the U.S. from Peru in 1997. Though she excelled in sports, did well in high school and became co-captain of her varsity volleyball team, she arrived on campus afraid, shy and overwhelmed as the first in her family to attend college. 

HLLC changed that. 

“My time at Rutgers taught me to believe in myself,” said Velarde. “HLLC provided me with a community that had my back and guided me every step of the way. 

That support enabled Velarde to dive into her studies, and take advantage of many internships, volunteer opportunities and extracurricular activities, with remarkable results. 

My time at Rutgers taught me to believe in myself.

She began her academic journey as a Biology major, changing to Psychology sophomore year while excelling in courses she was passionate about such as Cross-Cultural Psychology. As a junior she worked as a research assistant in RU-N's Child Study Center, run by Vanessa LoBue, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. This year Velarde served as a student member on the planning committee of the American Psychological Association (Division 45), collaborating with graduate students to create and organize panel discussions on culture, race and ethnicity. 

Velarde also took an array of courses through HLLC that she credits for drawing her closer to her personal history and broadening her perspective, including offerings in Latinx Studies, Gender Studies and Cultural Anthropology, gaining essential skills along the way. 

“My HLLC classes taught me how to have difficult conversations about race, ethnicity, identity and sexuality,” said Velarde. “I learned more about myself but also how to listen to others and have a dialogue rather than argue. I learned how to keep an open mind and gained the knowledge to be able to back up my stance on certain topics. I learned how to build community and be a change agent.” 

Velarde gave back to her community by serving as a Peer Mentor, then Peer Mentor Coordinator, for HLLC, creating safe spaces and offering resources for first-year and transfer students coming into the program. She also assisted RU-N Admissions by interviewing prospective HLLC students and helping with student advising. 

In addition to all this, Velarde became part of the Health Professions Learning Community (HPLC), a sub-group of the Office of Academic Services’ Pre-Professional Services area, which she credits with helping her understand just how diverse her career options are within the healthcare field and, ultimately, find her career path in Occupational Therapy. 

“HPLC expanded my knowledge of the medical field and showed me how diverse it really is, that we don’t all have to be doctors or nurses to be involved and help others.” 

For her many years of dedication to HLLC and her studies, Velarde recently won the HLLC Spirit Award and the HLLC Clement A. Price Legacy Award, and was inducted to Psi Chi, the Psychology Honors Society, as well as Phi Beta Kappa. 

If that weren’t enough, outside of school Velarde also gained valuable health-profession experience by volunteering at St. Michael’s Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Department, where she helped to provide physical and occupational therapy services, and at Hospice of New Jersey, where she worked directly with terminally ill patients and their families. She also was an Occupational Therapy intern at Jump Ahead Pediatrics, in Jersey City.  

Velarde will start a Masters in Occupational Therapy program at NYU in the fall, and hopes to work in a children’s hospital upon graduating. 

As she moves on to the next phase of her life, Velarde reminisces about where she started, what she’s gained, and how she prioritized giving back to the community that’s given her so much. 

“With the support of HLLC and my friends I learned to embrace my power and my voice. I learned to speak up for myself and to use my voice to amplify the voices of others,” said Velarde. “I’m also grateful that I was provided the opportunity to give back to both HLLC and HPLC as a Peer Mentor. My mentors my freshman year helped me feel safe and at home, and so I am genuinely grateful that I was able to do the same for the next generation of scholars.”