Jennifer Zelaya – Working to Empower

Half the fun of HerStory is being regularly introduced to new awesome ladies doing awesome things. That’s how we met Jennifer Zelaya, whom we met through the previously featured Mara D’Amico.  (If you aren’t as blown away as I was by Jennifer’s passion and dedication, I question your value system.)

Picture1Here is Jennifer with the fieldworkers in South Sudan after she had finished a two-week training conducting quantitative prevalence studies of VAWG

Q: Why are you interested in public service?
A: I grew up in a low-income community in Los Angeles where I learned first-hand how a lack of resources (food, health, or otherwise) impacts quality of life.  I have continued to discover the injustices others face and learned about the ways that I could improve the lives of those around me. Encouraged to reach my potential by some pretty great mentors, I knew very early on that I wanted to work in a profession that empowered others. Although I have had roles in other non-public service sectors, I haven’t felt the same sense of meaning and purpose that I feel when I am working in social welfare or public health.

Q: How did you get started in public service?
A: I studied Psychology at UCLA and during my time there, I was interested in working in the community. I trained as a crisis counselor at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and worked there for a year. From that point forward, I found other opportunities that allowed me to learn a lot about the mental health landscape in the US. I found a position managing community-based programs for kids that had experienced traumatic events. In addition, I developed a photography and mindfulness program to help female adolescents struggling with depression and anxiety.  I knew that I wanted to be working to help reduce mental health stigma in our communities. After a lot of soul searching, I went on to receive my Masters in Social Welfare and Masters in Public Health at UCLA—so that I would have the skills to provide therapy at the individual and group level, but to also develop and evaluate mental health programs, which is really exciting!

Q: What do you do now?
A: Over the last three years, I have focused on Violence Against Women and Girls at the global level, with field experience in Latin America and the Caribbean Region.  Working for the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University, I manage multiple studies that focus on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) in Central America. I have also supported fieldwork in South Sudan in order to learn how conflicts impact the lives of women and girls. One of the greatest aspects of my job is that I have been able to mentor students on the practicum and capstone projects for their Masters in Public Health or International Development. In addition, it’s been wonderful to have the opportunity to work in different countries, learning about their various cultures and the ways in which their communities are trying to prevent VAWG.

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Q: What advice would you give a woman coming up in public service?
To seek out mentors in a similar field and to ask questions often. It’s also important to be gentle and flexible with yourself as you get started on your path—things change, interests change, and you grow so much in the span of a few months or years. I would also encourage one to try out different roles and areas of interest; it’s important to figure out what you like and to be open to what you discover.

Q: If you had to choose a meme or gif to demonstrate your daily work life, which one would you choose? **


Q: Who is your role model?
A: My mother. She has endured a difficult life: from immigrating to the US in the 70s (by foot), striving to provide for a family of five. However, she has a huge amount of resilience and is extremely hardworking, smart, kind, and generous—qualities I aspire to in my daily life.


Q: What Instagram account do you like to check when you need a distraction?
A: I enjoy accounts on cooking, design, and those accounts that share tips on how to get better at taking care of yourself. Here are a few:

We are new fans of Jennifer and can’t wait to see what she does next!!

**Subnote: As mentioned before, we give extra credit points to Leslie Knope references. We give SUPER extra points for referencing awesome women previously featured on the blog.


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