Class of 2020: Karen Reyes, B.S. Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling

A Portrait of Resilience

Karen Reyes's photoA child of immigrants in an underserved public school district, it took Karen Reyes six years to achieve her dream of a Rutgers degree.

Without guidance on how to apply, or obtain financial aid, she began school in community college, periodically pausing her education to support her family.

As she was nearing graduation, COVID-19 threatened to upend her goal once again.

In early spring, while Karen, 24, was working and completing a clinical rotation, her father tested positive. Caring for him, she contracted the novel coronavirus, and it spread throughout her family. Her uncle, a healthy man in his 50s, did not survive.

She let her professors know her situation – that she might not be able to meet her deadlines as she was caring for family members, and recovering herself.

“I don’t know how I managed it but I got everything done on time. And I kept on working,” she said.

Her efforts didn’t go unrecognized. “Karen won the academic excellence award this year and also excelled at her clinical site – all of this despite battling COVID-19,” said Nora Barrett, vice chair, Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions.

Karen’s life has continually been filled with obstacles to be overcome.

She was motivated to go into the field of psychiatric rehabilitation after witnessing her members of her family struggle with mental illness and substance use disorder. Since they were undocumented, they lacked access to treatment. “I want to help that population, and also the homeless,” Karen said.

She began higher education at 17 at a community college. “It was always my dream to be at Rutgers and be part of the Rutgers community, but I didn’t know how to get there,” she said. “Financially, there wasn’t enough money. I had to work to provide for my mother and siblings.”

At community college, she found a network of professors who encouraged her and steered her through the process of applying to Rutgers and obtaining loans.

Living in a one-bedroom apartment with four other family members, she had to find quiet places to study – spending all night at the Newark Library, or going to Dunkin Donuts during exams. She will be the first in her family to graduate college.

Throughout her education, she has worked at Bioreference Laboratories, first as clerk and now as an administrative assistant, a job she continued to do remotely while she was ill – with the exception of taking one sick day. Due to the pandemic she has taken on additional roles such as giving doctors results of COVID-19 tests and working in a pop-up site in Jersey City assisting with serology testing.

Although Karen’s clinical rotation as a counselor at a wellness center was interrupted by the viral outbreak, she has continued to provide one-on-one counseling and emotional support to three individuals through telehealth. Since the pandemic has taken away jobs for now, Karen plans to volunteer in a homeless shelter in Passaic providing emotional support after graduation.

“I want to do it for my community, I grew up here and I feel there is really a need,” she said.