School of Social Work Commencement Speakers Stand Out as Community Builders, Advocates for Justice

2022 Commencement speakers Gabrielle Mitchell MSW '22 and Julio Leon Ortiz BSW '22 to deliver message of hope to graduates.

This spring has already been an eventful one for School of Social Work Commencement speaker Gabrielle Mitchell, MSW ‘22. Within a period of a few weeks, she learned she would be receiving the Outstanding Senior Women’s Academic Achievement Award from UConn’s Women Center and that she had also been nominated to be Social Worker of the Year by the Connecticut Alliance of Foster and Adoptive Families through her employer, the Department of Children and Families (DCF). “I got all this news within weeks of each other and I’ve just been on cloud nine ever since,” she says.

Gabrielle has truly exceled as a master’s student at UConn, where she has focused her studies on the Individual, Group, and Families concentration. During her time at the School, she has emerged as a student leader and drawn on her studies to serve clients through her field experiences.

Earlier in the pandemic, Gabrielle did case management in the family HIV program at Connecticut Children’s and UConn Health. Though she was not able to meet with clients in person, she made sure her clients were taking their HIV medications, attending appointments, and receiving needed financial assistance. She also attended clinical huddles every morning to get updates on new and existing patients.

It was in her second year that Gabrielle was able to apply a clinical lens and classroom learning to serve clients at the DCF where she worked fulltime. “It was essentially using a clinical lens on an existing case, and seeing how by using that lens, we could engage families better, and come up with more appropriate treatment recommendations,” she explains. “We were able to see it doesn’t have to be a therapy setting or role, but it could be done by utilizing the different theories and perspectives that we learned in our MSW studies.”

Those perspectives informed her work with one mother who was struggling with mental illness. “Every family, every individual is separate, and they have to be looked at based on their experiences. That’s how we’re going to see the progress and outcomes that we would like to see in order for cases to close successfully,” she says.

While juggling field placement and her studies, Gabrielle managed to find time to also co-chair the Organization of Black Student Social Worker. Though the experience was completely new to her, at the height of Covid, she organized a virtual yoga event and an art activity. “That was exciting and it was a new experience because it was something I never took on before, getting to meet different groups of people within the other student organization groups and providing some outlets for the students throughout Covid.”

“Gabrielle is an exceptional student and leader,” said Trisha Hawthorne-Noble, director of the Office of Student and Academic Services at SSW. “She served as chair for GSO’s Organization for Black Student Social Workers as well as a committee member for Black History 365, and brought communities together. Additionally, she is very engaged in communities outside of the school and continues to be an advocate for economic and racial justice. Without a doubt, Gabrielle will continue to be an agent of change in the profession.”

What does Gabrielle, who plans to pursue a leadership position at DCF after graduation, want to say to her fellow graduates at Commencement? “What I’m planning on is reminding them of what our ethical and moral obligations are in this field and giving them hope and excitement for what’s to come in the future, in their new or continuing journeys in this field,” she notes. She will also touch on the hardships of pursuing their studies during a global pandemic. “I’m going to be acknowledging that briefly but really making sure that [graduates] know they should be proud of themselves, their families should be proud, their friends should be proud, and what the expectation for the work is moving forward.”


Co-Commencement speaker Julio Leon Ortiz, BSW ’22, was equally thrilled, though a bit nervous, to be asked to speak at the ceremony in May. “I’m excited for people’s journeys and where they’re heading and celebrating this really crucial and really important time after two rough years that we all have experienced in different ways,” he says.

As a first-generation student who benefited from the support of social workers in his life early on, Julio has enjoyed the opportunity to give back and help others. His field placement has involved supporting fellow students through the Academic Achievement Center at UConn Hartford’s campus. “It’s been an honor to do that and be a source of support, a source of inspiration, of motivation, especially for our first-generation undergraduate students who also come from similar cultural backgrounds like me, being BIPOC, being Hispanic, being the first ones to go to college, which can be very intimidating.”

Through the UConn Connects Mentoring program, Julio has supported both students who were struggling academically as well as others who simply needed extra encouragement. The program offers workshops and presentations to help students study effectively for exams and through other challenges.

It’s this type of peer support that Julio has appreciated throughout his time in the bachelor’s program. Despite the pandemic and learning virtually, he has benefited from the camaraderie of his classmates. “I think that sense of community, that sense of friendship has really impacted me,” he notes.

“Julio embodies and enacts the values of social work in all that he does,” says Paula Nieman, assistant professor in residence and director of the BSW Program. “Whether offering emotional or practical support to a classmate, contributing to faculty research about vulnerable community members, or organizing efforts to bring additional services to UConn Hartford students, Julio is a passionate advocate for social, racial, and economic justice and a committed community-builder.”

After graduation, Julio will either work or engage in a year of service through AmeriCorps before returning to school to get his master’s in social work. He believes his education at UConn has prepared him for whatever comes next. “It has really challenged me as a human being and has given me the skills to flourish,” he says. “I’m ready to make a difference in the world and I feel empowered and prepared and ready to be challenged. I think there’s space for growth to learn about myself and the work that I will do.”


As in year’s past, the two Commencement speakers will read the same speech, but Gabrielle will deliver it in English while Julio shares the message in Spanish.

Congratulations to all our 2022 graduates!