Alumni spotlight: Former cosmetologist with 2 master’s degrees works to help youths find opportunities


Mark J. Scarp

Belinda Escalante is the youth transition director for Opportunities for Youth (OFY). She received master’s degrees from ASU’s School of Social Work (SSW, policy, administration and community practice, 2018) and School of Public Affairs (SPA, public administration, 2020).

At OFY, she assists its Reengagement Center network to better coordinate care and referrals between organizations for out-of-school foster youth and youth experiencing homelessness who are among the top special populations served by the network. She also works on policy and advocacy to address systemic issues affecting these populations.

Read on to learn more about Escalante, her personal journey, her work and how ASU helped prepare her for her second career:

Q.       Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? Talk about your background growing up and the path your life has taken.

A.       I was born in California. Both my parents were fieldworkers with limited education and they struggled to support a family of four. My parents were hard workers, yet we didn’t have enough money, so we needed government assistance to survive. It wasn’t until later in my life that I realized my parents were the working poor. I saw how much pain and stress not being able to provide for one’s family could cause. Even though we didn’t have much growing up, I vividly remember seeing my mother help others —translating documents from English to Spanish or sharing community resources with others.

When I was a pre-teen, my family moved several times between California and Texas. During my formative years, I struggled from an unstable household and the continual challenge of being uprooted from my community and school. I struggled with school, feeling bored much of the time and it resulted in me being disengaged for a brief time. Needless to say, the path to graduating high school was not an easy one.

Once I did graduate high school in 1996, I left Texas and went to Connecticut. I was there for a summer and I worked with youth and adults that have a disability. After the summer, I moved to Wisconsin. While there, I worked with the elderly and chronically ill. After another year, I moved to Minnesota, where I lived for 10 years. During my time there, I became a professional, licensed massage therapist, cosmetologist and small business owner. In 2007, I moved to the Phoenix (area), where I have worked with youth and adults with developmental, intellectual, behavioral disabilities and youth in and transitioning out of foster care.

Q.       What are you doing now?

A.       I am passionate about employment and education access as a way for people to gain a sense of stability and self-sufficiency, so it was a natural move for me to join ASU’s Opportunities for Youth (OFY) in April 2019. OFY works with opportunity youth, who are youth aged 16-24 who are neither in school or work.

Today, there are approximately 67,100 opportunity youth in the greater Phoenix area.

Recently, I began assisting with grant writing in an effort to support our sustainability efforts. My position is funded until fall 2020 and I’m hopeful that we will be able to secure additional funding so I’m able to advance this critical work.

Q.       What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A.       It took me a while to find what I will call my second ‘aha’ moment. This is my second career; my previous (one) was as a small business owner of a spa/salon in Saint Anthony Park, Minnesota. I had reached my goal of being self-sufficient and experienced a deep level of satisfaction. However, I felt a void and strong desire to do more for those who are often marginalized and disregarded in our society. I knew others from my similar background were struggling and thought that maybe I could do something to lessen their suffering.

This introspection led me to sell my business and move to Arizona, which after some years of additional work experience revealed itself as my pursuing a dual degree in social work and public administration. In short, accepting, recognizing and valuing my own lived experience led me to my second “aha” moment.

With my lived experience and educational training, it made sense that I would seek to make changes around systems and narratives. Since both majors in my dual degree program complement each other, it made sense. I believe it’s a winning combo for me!

Q.       Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A.       Professor Felicia Mitchell was someone I met at the end of my social work undergraduate degree. I had her for Social Work Practice II, which is about working with groups, communities and organizations. I felt privileged to cross paths with her. She shared examples of her own professional work addressing environmental and health equity concerns in relation to Indigenous communities and how community members used photovoice to document their individual perspectives by taking photographs.

Also, it was vital for me to see a female minority as my professor. I felt encouraged by her that I was on the right track in pursuing my master's in social work the following semester and that I had picked the right concentration of policy, administration and community practice.

  • I was also very impacted by Professor Kyrsten Sinema’s class on Public Policy and Advocacy, which covers methods to engage in advocacy to impact social work practice. She shared how she’s been able to use her social work skills daily in her work in Congress and stressed the importance of our training and how much we are needed to help shape and influence policy.
  • Additionally, I would like to acknowledge Professor Justin Stritch, who I had for my first public administration class on Organizational Behavior. His enthusiasm on this topic was extraordinary. I consider his class a top favorite, and the concepts he taught around leadership in public service have been significant to me as a professional.

Q.       What’s the most important thing you’ve learned at ASU – about yourself, about what you’re studying, anything -- that came to you as a complete surprise?

A.       An important thing that I learned was that ASU provides a wealth of resources to ensure that you’re supported and set up for success. You just need to help yourself. 

Q.       What’s your proudest academic or professional accomplishment to date?

A.       Being done with my dual degree in social work with a concentration in policy, administration and community practice in 2018 and public administration in 2020. I started (the dual degree program) back in summer 2017.

However, I started my educational journey in summer 2013 at South Mountain Community College and transferred to ASU in spring 2016. So, I’ve been going to school for a total of seven years straight and am very proud to be done with this academic achievement! 

Q.       If you had college to experience all over again, what would you do differently? The same?

A.       I would do things the same. I was intentional throughout the first years of my education that I would make my learning my main priority. I didn’t work for a few years as I decided to have as much of a college experience as I could and I wanted the time to study since I had been out of the classroom for many years. Since I’ve always been a student of life, I didn’t just want to learn from my professors but wanted to learn from my peers and community leaders. This meant that I was busy in the classroom and outside. I was involved with various community efforts around civic engagement participation and was a student leader throughout at the community college and university level.

Q.       If you could clone yourself, what other career would you pursue?

A.       I would be a mindfulness meditation teacher.

Q.       If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A.       The one problem I would address would be climate change. I’d do this by seeking guidance and counsel from Indigenous leaders, business owners, environmentalists and scientists to get their recommendations on creating a new sustainable economy that would decrease humans’ impact on the land and our ecosystems.

Q.       What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?

A.       That for a brief time during my youth I suffered socially, mentally and academically. This stemmed from some home life challenges and resulted in my failing sixth grade. However, later while in high school with the help of my guidance counselor I was able to make up the year and graduate with my class.

Q.       What’s your life motto in one sentence?

A.       “Life is a journey. Learn to embrace it.”

Mark J. Scarp is media relations officer for the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.