June 3, 2022

Class of 2022: Former international human rights lawyer finds new calling in her new home

Monica Franco found the International and Community Development Master of Social Work a perfect fit for her international experience and passion for social justice.
Monica Franco Master of Social Work graduate
Monica Franco chose social work as her new vocation after leaving her role as a human rights lawyer in Colombia Courtesy Monica Franco

Imagine leaving everything behind. Hitting a hard re-set on your life and starting over.

This is where Monica Franco found herself back in 2015, when she was newly arrived in Canada. As a newcomer she was waiting tables, cleaning, basically doing anything she could to make a little money and waited, as she says, "for opportunities to present themselves."

It was half a world away — literally — from her former life as an international human rights lawyer working for the Colombian government and military and the United Nations.

In November 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), effectively ending a 50-year civil war with the guerrillas. It was notable that the agreement included provisions to protect defenders of human rights, which suggests how dangerous it was to be an advocate during — and after (over 400 human rights advocates have been murdered in Colombia since 2016) — the historic peace deal was signed.

This was the high-profile and often dangerous role that Franco held before coming to Canada — though she says in some ways she was privileged in that she was listened to in her role.

“I was lucky because I had a voice as I was next to the power and my voice was respected by the senior military commanders and government officials,” she says. “I mean, it didn't take as much courage, because I was part of things. So I was given the opportunity, and it was my role and responsibility to tell them the truth and to recommend actions in many areas to help the community.”

Given her unique position, it was perhaps not surprising that the United Nations High Commission of Human Rights selected her for a key position protecting rights in the country. It was important work, and in the years following the peace accord, shes felt gratified to see that a lot of the work she did eventually brought justice, with prosecutions of some of those responsible for committing human rights violations.

“I was one of the few women — a lawyer and a civilian — that was in the middle of the conflict working with the general command of the Colombian army,” she reflects. “That experience, was the reason I started working with the U.N. to support the government and the Colombian army to improve their policies and respect the population's human rights.”

A new life in Canada

Then fate intervened in the shape of her future husband, an Australian-Canadian she met in Colombia. Although she’d had no plans to leave — or even learn English for that matter — she suddenly found herself leaving her high-profile, high-stakes position and coming to Calgary.

While she was learning English and taking whatever survival work she could find, she weighed her options and realized that re-starting a legal career in Canada wasn’t very appealing. Going through law school again to become a junior lawyer felt like a discouraging and lengthy path to follow.

As a newcomer, she investigated the programs and assistance available to her, and, as she puts it, began to see social workers “everywhere.” She was impressed by their breadth of knowledge and their ability to help and thought that social work might be a good new profession for her.

She discovered that the University of Calgary is one of Canada’s leading schools and has the only specialization in international and community development, which combined her passions and included a strong social justice component.

“After all the experience that I’ve had, I said, ‘What I want is to continue in the social sector, to advocate for human rights, to help communities that need it.’ And that’s the reason I decided to become a social worker.”

Excelling in school and giving back

Despite completing her degree 20 years ago — and despite being told she’d probably have a better chance with the Bachelor of Social Work program — Franco decided to go for it, and applied for the master's program. And much to her surprise, she was accepted as a “foundation” student. If you have a non-social-work degree, you can still apply to the master’s in social work (MSW) program. You just start your degree with a year of foundational social work education.

Given her can-do attitude it’s perhaps no surprise that Franco has excelled and thrived in her MSW. And while you’d think the challenges of completing her master’s program in a second language might be enough, she’s also maintained a high GPA while continuing to give back to the community through practicum opportunities and volunteer work.

Her volunteer work includes work with the Calgary Immigrant Service Society. She also volunteers with the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA), where she provides mentorship to young professional newcomers like herself who are trying to make their way in Canada. In Chestermere, where she lives, she has worked with the local food bank and founded a Latin community group.

Her efforts and leadership were recognized by Chestermere’s municipal government, who has sought her involvement in diversity-oriented committees in the town. She was also recognized by the Faculty of Social Work with the Recognition of Excellence in Social Action award in 2020, and this year she was recently named as the faculty’s Cullen Ramsay Recognition of Excellence award for personal achievement winner.

After all the experience that I’ve had, I said, ‘What I want is to continue in the social sector, to advocate for human rights, to help communities that need it.’ And that’s the reason I decided to become a social worker.

Valuable work experience

Like the rest of the world, COVID-19 threatened to derail things for Franco in 2020. She had just started what she says was a great practicum with the Calgary Foundation reveled in the opportunity to make contacts and to work face-to-face in the profession.

However, after the pandemic ended the placement, she decided to apply for a faculty research assistant position with the SSHRC-funded, Transforming the Field Education Landscape (TFEL) research project, led by high-profile social work professor Dr. Julie Drolet, PhD, in the faculty’s Edmonton campus.

She says the role was transformative. It opened her eyes to how research projects are conducted and opened doors to new opportunities. Her work with TFEL has included developing three training modules about international practicums and practice research. She’s also contributed to three academic articles and helped prepare a report on international practicum. She even received an invitation from the Faculty of Kinesiology to work on a research project.

As she finishes up her last practicum, working with seniors in Chestermere, she says she’s looking forward to working as a professional and continuing to give back and to pay it forward. She says her journey has been challenging but never discouraging.

“It was challenging,” she confirms. “But you know what? When you have a positive mind and you know that it is provisional … that its temporary, then I was happy [while working as a waitress] to say, I’m using this opportunity to meet people, to practise English. I’m doing this as step in the process. It doesn’t change anything about who I am and honestly it was fun. I enjoyed it. I met a lot of good Latin friends, and I think everything is in the mind.

"We need to learn to adapt for whatever is coming in life and enjoy it. That’s life.” 

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