Jillian Rosa-Figueiredo brings the American Dream to immigrants in New York, one volunteer project at a time.
For four years, the 22-year-old St. John’s University graduating senior and Ozanam Scholar has volunteered with immigrant groups eager to integrate more fully into American society. Jillian teaches English to adult immigrants at the New York City-run We Speak NYC, and her Ozanam capstone project focused on easing anxiety among undocumented immigrant students.
A first-generation American whose parents emigrated to New York from Portugal, Jillian is keen to share the possibilities of America with those new to the country. “My family definitely struggled not having English as its first language,” said Jillian, who is fluent in three languages. “They were not aware of the programs and services in America they had access to that could help them. I want immigrants to know they have a home here in America.”
Home for Jillian is Central Islip, NY, where she attended nearby St. John the Baptist High School. Committed to social service even then, Jillian found a natural home at St. John’s in its Ozanam program. Established by Vincentian scholar Frederic Ozanam in the 19th century, the program examines issues created by poverty and social inequities. Students receive renewable scholarships in exchange for social service requirements; a commitment to earn at least a minor in Social Justice: Theory and Practice in the Vincentian Tradition; and an agreement to spend at least one semester studying at St. John’s Rome, Italy, campus.
Approximately six hours of service are required of Ozanam Scholars each week. Many, including Jillian, who graduates with a bachelor’s degree after double majoring in Spanish and Sociology, happily extend their time.
“Service to others has always been a passion of mine,” Jillian said. “Looking at the St. John’s website, you read about the University’s commitment to service, but you don’t really know about it until you’re there. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to serve.”
Those opportunities have included teaching at a facility for the homeless in Saratoga, NY; working in an area hospice; volunteering at a center for those with Down syndrome in Puerto Rico; and, while studying in Rome, working at a soup kitchen and teaching English to refugees under the direction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Of all of Jillian’s endeavors while at St. John’s, she said the most gratifying might have been her work with the dying at Capital Caring Health hospice beginning in the Fall of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic transformed her role from traditional caregiver to administrative researcher, where she was responsible for developing materials to promote cultural inclusion at area hospices for disadvantaged groups. Such a quick pivot salvaged Jillian’s experience at the hospice and gave her a renewed appreciation for those confronting end-of-life care in unprecedented times.
“Initially, I wanted to be able to make people feel more at home in their final days,” Jillian recalled. “But when the programs were shut down due to COVID, it became more of a research project. Now I want to bring the idea of hospice care into more cultures.”
After graduating from St. John’s, Jillian will attend Stony Brook University, where she will pursue her master’s degree to become a licensed clinical social worker—a passion that began in childhood and was cultivated at St. John’s, particularly in the Ozanam program.
And while a year lost on campus due to COVID was a challenge, Jillian never wavered in her commitment to the program and to the University. “Without the Ozanam Scholars program, I never would have had an opportunity to do all that I did,” Jillian said. “It enriched me as a person.”
“Throughout the pandemic, St. John’s was committed to giving students an educational experience,” Jillian added. “Through the virtual platforms that were available, I was still able to participate in service. I didn’t lose out on as much as I thought I might.”