Gilberto Maldonado on graduation day.
Gilberto Maldonado at Commencement.

For Gilberto Maldonado, life has always been about service. It’s something he learned early  in his birth family, and continued when he enlisted to serve his country at age 19. It still resonates today with his own family and second-act career in social work.

“Giving back has always been a priority,” said Maldonado. “It’s something that my wife and I feel very passionate about.”

Maldonado, a first-generation student and retired military veteran, crossed the stage May 11 with eighteen other students who were part of the inaugural cohort of the the online doctor of social work students at the University of Louisville’s Raymond A. Kent School of Social Work and Family Sciences. He was still on active duty in Fort Knox, KY, in 2012 when he began his master’s in social work program at Kent School, taking classes online, and in person on nights and weekends.

After Maldonado completed his MSSW and retired from the military in 2015, he was able to advance his career with a DSW he completed 100% online from his current home in Washington state with the support of his family and his employer, the Washington Air National Guard at the U.S. Army’s Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma, Washington.

As an embedded mental health provider on the base, he has implemented a peer-supported resilience program designed to aid military personnel with anxiety and depression. “It can become overwhelming for any of us at any given time,” he said.

Maldonado said his studies gave him a better understanding of social work industry standards. “There have been significant changes in the direction of social justice and anti-racist practice at the forefront of our profession in the last few years,” he said. “I am now prepared to go from helping the individual navigate through the system to helping shape the system so that it better serves the individual, empowering them to make better decisions,” Maldonado said.

In addition to his busy day job, Maldonado has volunteered once a week for the past year with a substance abuse program for active-duty personnel.

“We need to continue to increase access to care not just for our service members but for their family members because the wellness of the member and the family cannot be separated,” he said.

Managing a family, full-time job and doctoral studies was no easy feat, but Maldonado said Kent School helped him feel he was never alone.

“There were so many times I felt overwhelmed but my advisor, Dr. Susan Rhema, continued to be such a positive cheerleader even when I thought maybe I wasn’t going to make it,” he said. “All of the Kent School faculty and staff were genuinely interested in my success. Since I completed the program, I honestly believe that I am a better version of my capacity, and a better social worker.”