Rosalina Cerda-Lopez has always looked after others.
As the world social-distances and shelters-in-place during the Covid-19 pandemic, Cerda-Lopez is sending motivational cards to friends and families who are struggling.
“Acts of kindness go such a long way for people, now more than ever,” says Cerda-Lopez. “I’m now trying to inspire and uplift people around me while trying to keep myself uplifted.”
Such sentiments are moving in even the best of circumstances. But coming from Cerda-Lopez, who has faced her own obstacle course of challenges in her 28-year existence, they are more than moving, they are inspirational. Her story is a testament to the kind of determination, perseverance and hard work exhibited by many RU-N students, and to the support networks they benefit from on campus.
Cerda-Lopez grew up in East Orange, NJ. Her parents were born and raised in the Dominican Republic and received a grade school–level education. They migrated to the U.S. separately and met in New York City in the mid-1980s, had their first child—Cerda-Lopez’ older sister, Felicia—then settled in East Orange. Once in the U.S., Cerda-Lopez’ mother worked as a seamstress, then for more than 30 years at a factory that imprinted labels on cosmetics. Her father, who’d suffered from chronic asthma since childhood, has been working as a truck driver.
The household was a strict Christian home, with extended family members and friends from the Dominican Republic staying with them one by one upon their arrival in the U.S. Cerda-Lopez attended public schools in East Orange, including the town’s high school, where as a junior she started dating a boy who had moved from Brooklyn, a relationship that lasted 11 years. She graduated in 2009 and attended Union County College after her parents forced her to go, then dropped out at the end of her first year.
“I didn’t want to go to college after high school. I grew up in a Pentacostal Christian family, had been isolated from friends and was really sheltered,” says Cerda-Lopez. “I wasn’t ready.”
Acts of kindness go such a long way for people, now more than ever.
She tried her hand at cosmetology school and worked at a hair salon for a few months but found the work environment hostile and abusive. For the next two years she worked a series of jobs at a nearby mall, then realized she’d never be able to live off her meager income the rest of her life.
And so in 2013 Cerda-Lopez enrolled at West Essex campus of Essex County College, in West Caldwell, NJ. That same year a family member was incarcerated. In the next few years her boyfriend’s grandmother died, and she’d eventually realize her boyfriend was emotionally abusive as well.
During this tumultuous period, Cerda-Lopez managed to remain focused on school, going full-time while working three jobs: as a Macy’s sales clerk, nanny and house cleaner. She eventually transferred to Essex County College’s main campus in Newark and completed an associates degree in Human Social Services in 2016.
Cerda-Lopez had no burning desire to continue with school, but her sister, Felicia, who is three years older and had practically raised her, convinced her to apply to Rutgers-Newark, where she herself had received a master’s degree in social work (MSW) in 2012. Cerda-Lopez relented and started at RU-N as a junior in fall 2016, majoring in social work and minoring in psychology. She worked four jobs while taking a took a full course load that first semester and failed every class but one.
“I went to Rutgers-Newark but was very depressed at the time and didn’t know it, and I was devastated by how I did after graduating Essex with high honors,” says Cerda-Lopez.
The next semester she took one class while working several jobs and began to develop a support network both on and off campus, consisting of friends who nurtured her, got her professional help, and gave her the strength to extricate herself from her 11-year abusive relationship. She also established a connection with one of her social work professors, Audrey Redding-Raines, which also proved pivotal.
With her support network in place, in fall 2017 Cerda-Lopez resumed taking a full course load while working as a victim witness advocate at the Union County Prosecutors Office and cleaning houses on the weekends. Her motivation increased, her grades improved, and she was off and running—finally—and never looked back.
“I became passionate about social work after really connecting with Professor Redding-Raines,” says Cerda-Lopez. “I hated her class at first, but she always drew me in. Her consistent attention and nurturing was crucial. I definitely give her credit for making me want to work in this field.”
In fall 2018 Cerda-Lopez learned about a Rutgers-sponsored study abroad and service-learning program in Greece. A friend convinced her to apply, and she was accepted. The following January, during winter break, she spent two weeks with 50 students from Rutgers-Newark and -New Brunswick, learning about the history and culture of the country and working with refugees and the homeless.
In July 2019 Cerda-Lopez jumped at another study-abroad opportunity, traveling to Puerto Rico for two weeks with eight other students plus professors to install solar panels at rural schools affected by Hurricane Maria. The two trips cost nearly $7,000 combined. She paid for both with money she’d earned working.
“Traveling and studying abroad, these trips were huge doses of independence for me, since I’d come from a very sheltered family, and it’s beautiful to see what we accomplished in such a short amount of time,” says Cerda-Lopez. “I felt so empowered. It was a really amazing experience.”
Last fall Cerda-Lopez started an internship at Sierra House, a nonprofit in East Orange providing transitional housing for women and children. The experience, which she found through RU-N’s Social Work department, gives her three credits per semester and was supposed to last through mid-April but was cut short by Covid-19.
Last fall she also helped found the Phi Alpha Social Work Honor Society chapter at RU-N. She became president this semester and has continued meeting virtually with her board members while taking classes remotely.
Cerda-Lopez is three courses away from fulfilling her graduation requirements and expects to join her peers at commencement in May 2021. Her plan is to gain some additional field experience working with women and families before returning to RU-N for an MSW. Her long-term goal is to be a school social worker, focusing her energies on at-risk children and youth.
“I’m looking forward to graduating and finding a good social work job to sustain myself financially and help others,” says Cerda-Lopez. “And I’m looking forward to doing my MSW at Rutgers-Newark. I’ve built my social work family here and want to continue nurturing those relationships.”