Graduating senior draws on language skills at Latino outreach center, aims to practice family law

UMSL student Kim Castizo and her son, Daniel

When Kim Castizo crosses the UMSL commencement stage next month, she’ll be celebrating the completion of two degrees and making both her mother and her 11-month-old son, Daniel, especially proud. (Photo by P&T Photography)

Most people’s faces register surprise when Kim Castizo tells them that school has never really been her favorite thing.

“It probably doesn’t show with my double major, but I’m not a big fan,” the University of Missouri–St. Louis student admits with a laugh. “But my mom always said, ‘You’ve got to do it. If you’re living under my roof, you’re going to college.’”

Castizo has accomplished just that plus a whole lot more in the four years since she graduated from nearby Ritenour High School. She’s juggled jobs, studying abroad, motherhood and her UMSL coursework in both the Department of Language and Cultural Studies and the School of Social Work.

At times, the combined weight of it all has felt too heavy to bear.

“There are days now and then when I still want to quit school,” she says. “But I have had great support from my family, and now I’m watching my 11-month-old son grow, and I think it would make him proud to see this. I can also use it to rub in his nose later and say, ‘Yeah, I had you and I graduated, so you should probably graduate, too.’”

Castizo will definitely breathe a sigh of relief as she marks the completion of her undergraduate journey during the university’s fall commencement celebration Dec. 16. But she’ll also be looking ahead to more studies yet to come as she pursues the things she is most passion about, and she knows she’s up to the task.

Her years at UMSL, which she chose primarily for its affordability and proximity to home, have provided the St. Louis native with firm footing for the next steps toward her ultimate career goal – practicing family law.

“I hadn’t declared a major when I first enrolled [in 2013], but I did say I wanted to study French, so I was placed in those courses to start with,” explains Castizo, whose mother has always dreamed of visiting Paris. “And then I started to discover what it was I really wanted to do.”

Kim Castizo with her family

“I probably wouldn’t be able to graduate and finish if it wasn’t for the support I have back home,” Kim Castizo says. Pictured with her (at left) and her son Daniel are (from left) her husband Adrian Castizo, her mother Bertha Hernandez and her sisters, Karina, Miriam and Lizbeth Hernandez. (Photo courtesy of Kim Castizo)

Castizo, whose first language is Spanish, enjoyed her French classes, a summer study-abroad experience in France and the opportunity to continue building her language skills. But eventually she found that she was “struggling a bit” with the upper-level French content and needed to regroup.

“I actually had a talk with Professor [Violaine] White about kind of the root cause of those struggles, and it came down to the fact that I had never really studied my native tongue,” Castizo says. “And she said, ‘You know, we’re actually offering this new dual language major where you can do both, getting both the Spanish and the French side.’ And I said, ‘OK, cool, as long as this doesn’t push my graduation date back.’”

By then, Castizo had also added a second major altogether – a BSW.

“I knew I wanted to go to law school eventually, and I thought that social work offered a great foundation for having to deal with people,” she says. “The skills that you’re provided in social work are great. But of course that wasn’t enough, so I decided to tag on a child-advocacy minor.”

It’s been a lot to fit into her UMSL experience, to say the least. She also became a mother and a wife just in the last 12 months – and completed both a practicum and an internship.

Happily, along with the family members in her corner, she’s found support from approachable and helpful UMSL faculty members who have worked closely with her to design an academic plan that was doable.

“The professors in both departments have been very open and friendly – just very welcoming, and I think that that really has helped,” Castizo says. “If I didn’t have the personal connection that I do with the faculty, I probably wouldn’t feel that drive that I have. I think I really sense that caring.

“I’ve brought my kid on campus a couple times too, when I can’t find a sitter, and there’s just that feeling that you’re welcome here. I think that’s been my favorite part about being at UMSL – that it’s such a friendly campus. And it’s so diverse, and not just in terms of culture. You see older people, younger people – it’s been good.”

Another highlight of her academic experience was her internship this past summer in partnership with Saint Louis Crisis Nursery, which runs a Latino outreach center at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital.

In the spring, Castizo recognized that, in order to finish off the Spanish-language portion of her language major, she was in need of one more class that she wouldn’t be able to fit into her Fall 2017 schedule. A professor offered to do an independent study involving an internship, and Castizo loved the idea.

She ended up with two different internship offers, one at Casa de Salud and the other with the outreach center. The latter seemed like the best fit for the experience she was looking for, and she went for it, working there Monday through Friday, eight hours a day.

While the first few days involved a lot of filing and just figuring out the nuts and bolts of the work, she was soon dealing directly with clients.

“I ended up doing a lot of interpreting,” says Castizo, who had past experience as an interpreter for family members while she was growing up. “We’re right there on the St. Mary’s campus, so when clients would come in, we would help them do patient entry for things like Medicaid and also help with food stamps and calling into the family support system.

“A lot of times they came because they couldn’t get the insurance done, or this or that done, and so for them I think being able to make that one phone call or whatever it is that they’re very nervous to do was really important, because it isn’t a language that they’re comfortable in. And they were very appreciative of that.”

The internship further confirmed her intended career path and also allowed her to build new skills – both the people kind and the more technical sort – in areas that will help her later on.

“I think I was already empathetic toward the Latino population just because I felt that I understood their culture as a member of it myself, but I think when you’re actually working with them, it’s a lot different than growing up in it,” Castizo says. “We’re not all raised the same, and you never stop learning about a culture, even your own.

“And since I want to do family law, I think that this internship really helped, because I feel like I will have to deal with all these things somehow in law – maybe not specifically insurance but other complicated things, like child support and immigration issues.”

Once her UMSL degrees are officially behind her in a few more weeks, Castizo has her eye on a dual MSW/JD program at Washington University in St. Louis. Predictably, one of the items looming large on her agenda for this next year is to prepare for the LSAT. The other is to just take a bit of a break and savor life a little more.

“I just want to take that time to study, still volunteer and keep my skills fresh,” she says of her immediate plans, “and enjoy being a mom to Daniel.”

The UMSL Experience

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