Student holding book

Following Her Heart

How one student discovered her path with a little help from her SBU friends.

By Glenn Jochum
Photography by John Griffin

Like many undergraduate students, Jessica Caliendo ’22 came to Stony Brook University with a definite plan in mind. Because she had excelled in advanced placement STEM courses in high school and chemistry was her favorite class, her family encouraged her to pursue the engineering field. She decided to make chemical engineering her life’s work. The notion of paving the way for other women in a field dominated by men also appealed to her.

On only her third day on campus, Caliendo ventured out to a student engagement event to learn more about the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO), which provides resources, counseling and support to empower student well-being. She had heard about CPO during New Student Orientation a few days earlier and it struck a chord. At the event, she met student Alex Kehoe, a CPO outreach assistant who would become her best friend.

“Alex suggested that I attend some CPO events and if I liked them, I could start volunteering, too. I wasn’t sure at first because I had no experience with the topics of substance abuse, domestic and sexual violence, or mental health and suicide prevention before. Something in me told me to give it a go, and I’m so grateful that I did,” she said.

As she participated in CPO events, Caliendo befriended many CPO staff members who had social work degrees and they shared their career insights with her. She then researched the field and connected with students from Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare to learn more.

“I knew then in my heart that I wanted to pursue a career in social work,” she said.

Jess Caliendo

Jessica Caliendo ’22 inside the Center for Prevention and Outreach. As a volunteer and student intern, Caliendo has dedicated more than 100 hours to furthering CPO’s mission. “Because of my on-campus roles, I have a passion for higher education and I hope to utilize my social work degree on a university campus one day.”

Caliendo said that her CPO supervisor, Christine Szaraz, coordinator of CPO outreach programs, was instrumental in inspiring her to follow her true calling. “She was an absolute rock for me and helped me grow so much when I became a CPO student intern. I learned how to advocate for those experiencing sexual or domestic violence, and more importantly, how to educate our campus community on preventing future instances of violence. She was also an amazing social support system for me, especially during a time in my life when I really needed someone to look up to.”

With her decision made, Caliendo switched her major at the start of her sophomore year and enrolled in the prerequisites needed to be accepted into the competitive social work program in the School of Social Welfare. She was soon accepted and is now fully immersed in learning her future trade. After graduation, she has set her sights on attaining a master’s degree in social work from SBU and eventually becoming a licensed clinical social worker.

“A social work education will provide me with the skills, knowledge and strengths-based practice to work in a wide variety of roles,” Caliendo said. “I hope to use that knowledge to combat the societal forces of oppression, especially when it comes to gender, sexual orientation and race. These are prominent aspects of identity and there are many instances of institutional and individual discrimination occurring today, especially toward the transgender/gender non-conforming community.”

Caliendo has learned through her roles as a residential assistant, an orientation leader and a volunteer at CPO how incredibly important it is for someone to feel safe, cared for and comfortable in their communities.

“I believe that our generation can come together to fix the systems in place that continue to perpetuate racism and LGBTQ* discrimination in our society,” she said. “It’s all about everyone having the resources, knowledge and motivation to start important conversations and make changes in our communities.”

As a student leader and resident assistant, Caliendo helped the university stay safe during the pandemic by participating in the “Wear a Mask” video campaign. She’s the first student to appear in the video.

Glenn Jochum is a writer in the Office of Marketing and Communications