March 12, 2003
CONTACT: Ward Mullens


YPSILANTI – Officially, Norma Viola Cantú has been involved with social work since she enrolled at Eastern Michigan University six years ago. Unofficially, Cantú has been helping others since she was a young girl growing up in rural Texas.

Eastern Michigan University is celebrating Cantú’s accomplishments and her fellow students as part of its recognition of Social Work Month in March. This year EMU’s 186 social work students are serving internships in 154 social agencies, schools, and hospitals. These students will provide 80,500 hours of community service in southeast Michigan and northeast Ohio.

Cantú’s journey from public assistance recipient to social worker is not over but will take a pivotal turn in when she graduates in June from EMU with a master’s degree in social work.

“I was getting prepped and didn’t realize it,” said the 52-year-old single mother of two.

Working as migrant farmers was part of life for most of the Mexican families in her hometown. Growing up as the oldest of six children, Cantú and her siblings were expected to work in the fields at a very young age.

“As soon as we could walk, we would work with our parents,” Cantú said. “We picked cantaloupes, green peppers, chili peppers, cucumbers and whatever else was in season to be picked.”

“At age six, I was known as the best little cotton picker in the migrant camps,” Cantú remembers proudly.

Despite long hot days, cold mornings, and the stench of pesticides, Cantú said she remembers the strong sense of community within the camp.

“In our Mexican culture families and communities help each other,” she said.

That same culture almost kept Cantú from following her dream to go to college.

“As females we were expected to marry, have kids and become caretakers,” she said.

Even when she had the opportunity to go to school came along; Cantú said it was limited to a junior college vocational experience to gain secretarial skills.

Cantú said she saw her chance for something different when she was 24. She met a man in the military, got married and moved to various bases throughout the country.

The journey took Cantú through Virginia, Montana, Mississippi, Colorado, Ohio and Michigan. It also included a divorce.
Along the way, Cantú continued to help others. She worked with ESL (English as a Second Language) students at various educational institutions; volunteered with the Red Cross at a Veteran’s Hospital; and worked with community groups advocating for underrepresented and impoverished people.

“I was doing community work but didn’t see it as that,” said Cantú.

“A friend of mine who was a single parent also went to college and told me that I could do it. I took two classes, but wasn’t doing well because I was working as a custodian and trying to take care of my children. That’s when I went on public assistance,” said Cantú.

Public assistance and child support allowed Cantú to focus on school and help her take care of her children.

“My kids are my driving force in persevering through adversity. There have been times when we have had nothing but government commodities and boxes for furniture, but we have each other,” she said. “I don’t want my kids to get lost in the system.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree Cantú decided to pursue a master’s degree. Her hard work was recognized and she earned a graduate assistant position in the social work department. Cantú said the stipend she earns as a GA really helps because it doesn’t affect her eligibility for food stamps and Medicaid.

Cantú’s leadership ability has not gone unnoticed either. She was recently elected to a two-year seat on the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). As a representative, she advocates for basic human rights and for the enhanced lives of underprivileged and homeless families and children. She also was appointed to the board of trustees with NASW’s Political Action Candidate Election (PACE), which endorses candidates for U.S. House and Senate seats.

Closer to home, Cantú is affiliated with EMU’s Latino Alumni Chapter, Organization of Latino Social Workers (OLASW), the Stoic Society, and is president of Welfare Rights at EMU.

“The first words that come to my mind when I think of Norma are commitment and passion,” said John Gunther, department head for EMU’s social work department. “She is committed to the worth and dignity of all human beings and has a keen sense of social justice in putting forth activities that let people empower themselves. She is a rare person with a gentle spirit, but yet a strong assertive voice for those most in need.”
Upon finishing school, Cantú said she will return to Texas so that she can try to help others. But just like the rest of her journey, she knows it won’t be easy.

“Because I am a female educated Mexican, I will be an outsider. I know it’s going to be a challenge,” she said with a smile.
“My experience doesn’t mean I know, but that I have some idea.”