Julissa Castillo: Campus Explorer

Student brings Texas-Sized curiosity about people and cultures to Maryville

by Nancy Fowler

Reading time: 5 minutes

First-year student Julissa Castillo blew in from Donna, Texas, like a tornado last fall—and she hasn’t stopped swirling since.

Castillo can’t seem to absorb enough campus experiences and cultural diversity. She belongs to the Latino Student Alliance and Association of Black Collegians. She’s a senator in Maryville Student Government, Physical Therapy Club member, has two work-study jobs, and she will be a residential life assistant next year.

Castillo’s internship involves helping to write a book featuring St. Louis people who have escaped poverty. And she’s featured as part of Maryville’s Digital World project to document student experiences.

Of course, that’s all on top of the rigorous courses she’s taking in anticipation of acceptance into Maryville’s physical therapy program. Nearly every day this past year, she woke up for an 8 a.m. class with the help of her morning coffee. But even with her busy schedule, Castillo doesn’t feel stressed out.

“I do not see everything I do as ‘so much work,’” Castillo says. “Instead I see it as so many opportunities — opportunities that not everyone in the world will ever have.”


A Born Teacher

The small south Texas town Castillo calls home is known as “the city with a heart,” but poverty runs strong through the veins of its daily existence.

“I do not see everything I do as ‘so much work,’” Castillo says. “Instead I see it as so many opportunities — opportunities that not everyone in the world will ever have.”

Castillo is the oldest of five kids who grew up speaking Spanish in a three-room trailer where love was plentiful, but luxuries were rare. Her father worked three jobs and her mother taught the children how to hunt for thrift-store bargains.

They had a computer, but no internet service. So, as the big sister, Castillo spent weekends and school breaks pushing her siblings toward educational excellence using her old textbooks.

“I had my sister doing fifth-grade math. And she responded with ‘I’m only in third grade!’” Castillo laughs.

Castillo saw the value of education first-hand after her father completed his two-year certification as an occupational therapist assistant, and the family enjoyed their first real vacation in Monterrey, Mexico, when she was 13.

As a high-school junior, she enjoyed trips to Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, thanks to a college-tour provided by her charter school. When she stepped onto the campus of Maryville University, she knew it was the right place.

“People were so friendly, the whole community was very, very nice,” Castillo says.

When she arrived last fall, Castillo immediately dove into sharing her own culture and immersing herself in others’. She began helping a friend from Egypt practice his Spanish; now he’s teaching her new words.

She sampled Greek, African, and Korean food, and recently attended a soul-food “Around the Table” gathering sponsored by the Association of Black Collegians and the Inclusion at Maryville group. She was surprised to discover black-eyed peas on the buffet.

“I thought that was just a band; I didn’t know it was an actual food,” she says.

Food can also be medicine, Castillo learned. When she was sick, her Ethiopian-born roommate introduced her to an unfamiliar remedy: steaming ramen noodle soup with onions and green peppers, eaten under a blanket.

“She told me to put the blanket over my head, and I’m like, ‘What?’” Castillo said. “I started sweating and she said, ‘You’re sweating out the toxins.’ Two days later, I was better.”


Changing Lives

Just one week into her work-study job at the Center for Student Engagement, Castillo helped recruit a prospective student who was there with her mother. She connected the high-school senior with the Jewish organizations she sought, and told her about the Multicultural Scholars Program — of which Castillo is a part. They kept in touch, and Castillo recently learned the young woman had won a Multicultural Dean’s Award scholarship.

“She wants to bring a lot of diversity to the Jewish community,” Castillo said. “She and I are already talking about multicultural objectives for next year.”

Later on, Castillo’s plans include returning to her roots. After she earns her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, she wants to go home to Donna, Texas, and open a practice. When Castillo imagines what the work will be like, she sees similarities to the days and years spent educating her siblings.

“Being a Physical Therapist resembles being a teacher; I’ll be able to teach people to get back on their feet and continue their lives,” she says.

Castillos’ overall goal is to make a difference, whether it’s in the professional or personal realm.

“I want for people to say, ‘Because of her, my life has changed,’” she says.


This story was originally published in the Spring 2016 edition of Maryville Magazine.

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