For many children who grow up in the impoverished rural community of Immokalee in Collier County, the goal is to leave that life behind and find success elsewhere.
But for Maria Jimenez-Sebastian, who graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University this year with a bachelor’s in social work, the true measure of her personal success is staying right at home in Immokalee to make communication and connections — and life in general — easier for the underserved people who live there.
Once life returns to normal after the COVID-19 crisis passes, Jimenez-Sebastian, who just turned 24, plans to direct a new agency in Immokalee affiliated with Maya Interpreters, a service that specializes in translating indigenous languages. It’s a mission she literally was born to fulfill. Originally from San Miguel Acatan, Huehuetenango, Guatemala, Jimenez-Sebastian’s parents moved the family to Immokalee when Maria was 4; she was raised there with four siblings and graduated from Immokalee High School in 2015.
After earning her associate’s degree at Florida SouthWestern State College in 2018, she came to FGCU to complete work on her bachelor’s in social work. For the past five years, Jimenez-Sebastian also has worked with Maya Interpreters, specializing in the languages Akateko and Q’anjobal, both native to her birth region. Soon, she’ll be bringing the service to her adopted hometown.
“Growing up as an indigenous person, there were very few resources for the Guatemalan community, and little to no access for proper communication during hardship times, which made it difficult receiving assistance,” Jimenez-Sebastian said. “That experience growing up, and the struggles I had to overcome, are what led me to bring this opportunity to the indigenous community of Immokalee.”
Meanwhile, as she waits to open her agency, Jimenez-Sebastian has been putting her skills and passion for social work into play. “During this hard time with COVID-19, I have been working on recent efforts with some FGCU alumni and Immokalee community members to assist migrant farm workers in Immokalee, such as with food distribution for those most vulnerable and affected by COVID-19,” she said.
A young woman determined to make life easier for others as her calling is the product of “mentors who inspired me … teachers from middle and high school in Immokalee,” Jimenez-Sebastian said. One childhood influence, though, was special. “My mother, Petrona, has been the most influential mentor in my life, and continues to be,” she said. “She has always made sure I never gave up on myself.
“My most recent inspirational mentors are my professors at FGCU from the Department of Social Work, the founder of Maya Interpreters (Carmelina Cadena of LaBelle), and one of the FGCU alumni. Each of these mentors guided me to be the person I am through change, motivation, opportunities and support,” Jimenez-Sebastian said.
The FGCU alumna to whom Jimenez-Sebastian refers is Maria Cardenas, who earned her bachelor’s in social work in 2013. Cardenas oversaw Jimenez-Sebastian during her internship at Catholic Charities of Immokalee, and together, they founded the Immokalee Grassroots Movement, which Cardenas describes as a “people-to-people empowerment and assistance group from within the community.”
Cardenas said “life has not been easy” for her friend and mentee. “However, Maria utilized those hardships as her reasons to seek an education, and with that, change,” Cardenas said. “She values our diverse community, and is an advocate for our community and those who identify as Guatemalan-indigenous. Maria is a gem. I am sure she will excel and inspire other young Guatemalan Latinx.”
Indeed, as a true example of The FGCU Effect — inspiring those who inspire others — Jimenez-Sebastian has taken her Eagle experiences to become a catalyst for the change Cardenas described, only now, she’ll help facilitate change for others.
“It was challenging being a commuter from Immokalee to FGCU, but it did not stop me from being involved as much as I could with the social work department’s activities,” Jimenez-Sebastian said. “Doing so, I became a mentor for students in the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida program. I also was able to participate in the travel study trip to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and I had the opportunity to complete my internship with Catholic Charities of Immokalee before graduating.
“My experience at FGCU was wonderful, and one of the best choices I have made,” she said.