Catherine Gonzalez always knew she wanted to help people. But it wasn’t until an undergraduate class on the history of the civil rights movement that she felt inspired by the law.
“I saw how powerful the law can be as a tool for affecting social change,” she says.
From that realization, Gonzalez went on to graduate cum laude from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
While in law school, Gonzalez interned at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. International and Comparative Law Clinic. There, she helped write a petition advocating for greater enforcement of migrant workers’ rights. The petition informed the Mexican government that the United States was not living up to the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. The petition led to the two governments talking about the issue.
“It was a powerful experience,” says Gonzalez. “It was incredibly rewarding to advocate for an underserved population. I have worked on a range of projects to help disadvantaged individuals, including migrant farmworkers, those in need of humanitarian assistance and tenants facing eviction. I have seen the power that outreach initiatives combined with legal assistance can have in shaping meaningful change.”
Wanting to help underserved populations through legal services, Gonzalez teamed up with Civil Justice, Inc., a Maryland nonprofit with the mission of increasing legal services to clients with low and moderate incomes.
Working with Civil Justice, Inc., Gonzalez noticed a pervasive problem facing consumers: student loan debt—a problem some have identified as the next “subprime crisis.”
Thanks to her fellowship, Gonzalez will implement a student loan debt assistance program within Civil Justice. She believes little is being done at the community level to mitigate the problems caused by student loan debt and wants to meet this unmet need. Her project will focus on students with debt from for-profit institutions.
“Students are drawn to these programs with promises of a better future,” Gonzalez says. “Instead, they get trapped in a cycle of poverty.”
Many for-profit institutions have high drop-out rates, she says. “And many institutions mislead people with a promise of a high-paying job. But what these students don’t know is that their expensive degree is not reflective of the program’s quality. Once they graduate, they can’t find jobs and are left with a burden of debt.”
“Student loan debt is different than other debts,” Gonzalez says. “If people are unable to pay, retirement benefits, disability benefits, veteran’s benefits, income tax refunds and even an individual’s wages are subject to garnishment. If the government starts garnishing your wages, you no longer have a choice of what debts to pay. You no longer have the choice to prioritize rent, electric bills or food because your debt payment is automatically coming out of your paycheck. It has a domino effect and makes poverty inescapable.”
Gonzalez will begin her outreach in Baltimore City to let students know about her student debt assistance project. She will offer legal advice and education.
As an example of how she will work, Gonzalez might help students determine whether they qualify for debt relief in cases where institutions falsely stated the students’ eligibility for federal loans. She might help point others to pay-as-you-earn programs, or relief programs that apply if students are unable to work because of disability or illness.
“I want to be a part of innovative social change, which is Open Society Institute’s mission,” Gonzalez says. “I feel really committed to Baltimore and the fact that there are so many positive changes being made. Through the fellowship, I’m able to start an initiative that wouldn’t have been in existence. It’s a huge unmet need. With OSI’s support, I hope to get a project off the ground that fills a void in the Baltimore community.”