headshot of Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt looking out a window

Humans of the U: Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt

“I don’t want anyone else to struggle in silence in the ways that I did. If I would’ve known about the support and resources that were available to me, I might not have taken 23 years to earn my associate degree.

I left home when I was 13 and lived on the streets of Seattle for two years. When I was 15, I became pregnant and was asked by the youth center I had been going to for services if I wanted to speak to a group of doctoral students from the University of Washington who were studying adolescent pregnancy. That was my first real exposure to college education and I decided back then that one day, that would be me.

When I was 16, I moved to Utah to live with my half-sister, got my GED and started at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC). For the next 23 years I had ups and downs of dropping out, failing out, losing my financial aid and once I left because of medical reasons, but I kept coming back and eventually received my associate of science degree.

By that point, I had tried out several different classes and majors, but when I first read the preamble to the Social Work Code of Ethics, tears just streamed down my face. I knew right then, ‘I am a social worker.’ It was a social worker who connected me to my half-sister who took me in when I was a pregnant teenager, and it was a social worker who saved my life when I was 11 years old. I had a suicide attempt and a social worker asked me why I wanted to end my life. In that moment, I realized I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to continue to suffer.

This year, I am celebrating 15 years of sobriety and graduating with my Master of Social Work from the U. My son is living a life that he loves and owns his own commercial film production company. I’m so proud of him, I’m incredibly proud of myself and I know that I have found my place in social work.

Thanks to recovery and stability, my life is unrecognizable. I think it’s a testament to how stability and the ability to focus and have basic needs met can really launch someone and nourish their ability to succeed and thrive academically. That’s why I’m so excited to be involved in launching the Basic Needs Center at the U. We define basic needs as the economic, housing and financial security of our undergraduate and graduate students.

I’m a first-generation student, daughter of immigrants who became a single mom as a teenager. I know what it is to struggle, but I actually don’t think my story is unique. As I go on to pursue my Ph.D. in social work, I’m hoping to elevate the visibility of what many students are going through as well as invest in the next generation of social work scholars.”

—Sarah Elizabeth Garza-Levitt, associate director, Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology, University of Utah College of Health