Posted on May 11, 2022 by Amanda Cerreto

MAY 5, 2022 — From an early age, Sandra Bustamante knew she wanted to serve the public. As a high school student in Center Point, Texas, she was volunteering constantly. In that small town where she graduated alongside just 32 other people, she was able to directly see the impact of her volunteer work.

While Bustamante was volunteering, she also was helping to care for her youngest sister. During that time, she navigated therapeutic services for her sister and became all too familiar with the maze of social service program requirements.

"I found the process to be extremely difficult," she said. "Had it not been for the help of those public servants working in the department, it wouldn't have been feasible."

Spending her time navigating these increasingly difficult spaces, Bustamante began to think about how difficult it must be for others—those who don't speak English and those without Internet access or transportation—and decided then and there that it shouldn't have to be this way.

“There are a lot of individuals that need advocates at the policy level because a lot of these policies are made with preconceived notions.”

It was a teacher at her tiny high school who guided her toward public administration to make her dreams a reality. Bustamante, a first-generation college student, was grateful for the direction and immediately researched universities with a strong public administration program.

This month, Bustamante will earn her bachelor's degree in public administration and policy from the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy.

“UTSA stood out above all others,” Bustamante said. “Not only is it a Hispanic Serving institution, which made it feel more like home for me, but the public administration department was highly recommended.”

UTSA is a Tier One research institution with an undergraduate student population that is 57% Hispanic and 45% are first-generation college students. The university is striving to become a Hispanic Thriving Institution: a model HSI that advances social mobility and economic opportunities for Latino students and their communities by purposefully implementing policies, practices, and systems to accelerate Latino student success.

A driven student, Bustamante threw herself into her studies at UTSA and made sure she had plenty of face time with her professors, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every single semester, before the start date, I'd create my game plan,” she said. The ‘game plan' was an Excel spreadsheet full of due dates including internship applications, scholarship opportunities, registration deadlines and other milestones.

“I would reach out to my professors before the term started and ask for help planning. Dr. Patricia Jaramillo and Professor Gina Amatangelo would always take the time to go through my upcoming semester with me.”

Bustamante notes that this approach is particularly helpful for students like herself.

“Many students who attend UTSA are first-gen, so they may not know how to navigate college or may not know what opportunities are there,” she said. “So, you have to take the initiative of asking your professors about what opportunities they recommend.”

As a credit to this plan, Bustamante's schedule has been chock-full of internship opportunities. Most notably, she earned an Archer Fellowship , which provides students across the UT System with an opportunity to live, learn and intern in Washington, D.C. Until then, the UTSA student had never been on an airplane.

Bustamante interned with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during her time in D.C.

“I learned tremendously,” she said. “I was able to see at the federal level what policymaking looked like and how social service programs function.”

As is natural for Bustamante, she went beyond the minimum internship requirements. She dove deep into her assigned projects and took the initiative to create her own proposals and submit them to HHS’ strategic office. Her supervisors loved it and shared it with state leaders in the US.

The Archer Fellowship is one of several experiential programs enabling UTSA students to gain a greater understanding of the marketable skills they need to succeed in the workplace. These hands-on learning opportunities are particularly important in linking classroom success to life after graduation, especially for historically underserved populations.

As part of its strategic plan, UTSA aims for 75% of its undergraduate students to participate, as Bustamante did, in some type of experiential learning by the time they graduate.

As Bustamante finishes her senior year, she is interning for the Edwards Aquifer Authority, where she is becoming familiar with another lens of policy and government.

She has previously interned with LISC San Antonio, a non-profit that advocates for unhoused individuals, Congressman Lloyd Doggett 's office and tracing back to her first professional experience, Magdalena House, a transitional shelter in San Antonio that serves mothers and children fleeing abusive situations.

“I cannot speak highly enough about Magdalena House,” Bustamante said. “I learned so much and I was also serving women and children at the shelter directly. Here, I learned how social service programs impact real individuals - real mothers, breathing children, who just need a chance.”

She added, “I’ve really tried to diversify myself and my experiences to see through different lenses of how social service programs affect the individual and what approach can create realistic solutions but also centering the actual individual's needs.”

She says that the offers speak to the support that UTSA faculty and staff have provided to her.

“Once I started getting these offers, I had no idea what to do,” she said. “Professor Amatangelo was there in a heartbeat with advice and guidance. UTSA really set me up for success.”

Before heading to graduate school, Bustamante has one more bucket list item to complete. She'll attend the American Association of Political Consultants' annual conference in Puerto Rico. The event will draw political consultants from across the nation.

Throughout the journey, Bustamante has never once lost sight of her goal.

“There are a lot of individuals that need advocates at the policy level because a lot of these policies are made with preconceived notions,” she said. “Ultimately, the better that I am as a professional and as a leader and as a listener, which I think is key, the more likely we'll change the policies.”

— Amanda Cerreto