SANFORD, Fla. (Oct. 5, 2021) – It is easy to talk to Joel Figueroa. When he talks about his field and his education, he is well-spoken and engaging, knowledgeable and friendly. So when he speaks about his struggles with anxiety and mental health, it’s surprising, but crucial.
Figueroa first came to Seminole State College of Florida to complete his Associate in Arts in 2010 before attending Florida State University (FSU) where he earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology. However, his initial plans of being a physical therapist were derailed as his issues with anxiety worsened. He returned to Seminole State to complete the Information Technology Analysis certificate, but stayed to complete his Bachelor of Science degree in Information Systems Technology with a specialization in cybersecurity. Through utilizing the resources in his community and trusting his network, Figueroa has improved his mental health and jumpstarted his new career. Now he works for Deloitte, was accepted into University of South Florida’s (USF) master’s program, was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Award and does nonprofit work to help others GO Far!
The Hardships of Mental Health
As he worked on his initial bachelor’s degree at FSU, Figueroa’s anxiety grew, but it didn’t fully show itself until after he graduated. “I developed general anxiety disorder, which snowballed into agoraphobia,” said Figueroa. “It got to the point where I could not leave my room, close my eyes in the shower or ride in cars. It consumed my entire life.”
Faced with extreme anxieties and panic attacks, he knew he had to make a change and slowly worked his way to a better state through therapy and antidepressants. Following a friend’s advice, Figueroa stepped out of his comfort zone and back to Seminole State to pursue an IT certification. He realized, “I can layer in these other classes and get another certificate, or maybe even three certificates. So I kept getting these certificates and layered in enough classes where I could get my associate degree.” After his success, he stayed on to earn his bachelor’s degree and further explore cybersecurity. “All throughout my degree I was working on myself and my mental health, and fortunately, I’m at a place where I’m unstoppable again,” he said.
He knows that it isn’t the same for everyone and, for those who are struggling with their mental health, Figueroa’s advice is to do the research on what you are going through and utilize local resources. “Feeling awful sucks, whether it is depression or anxiety or the bevy of a million other mental disorders out there,” he said. “We have to end the stigma on mental health, because you should be able to have these conversations with anyone.”
Figueroa has worked hard to expand his comfort zone and now has shifted focus onto helping others. He advocates for the services he used, including Peer Support Space and SMA Healthcare. “I know how it feels to be in that bottom dark pit, I just don’t want anyone else to get there,” said Figueroa. He is also the marketing director for Impulse Group Orlando, a nonprofit dedicated to HIV and AIDS advocacy work, as well as mental health, substance abuse and social justice awareness. The nonprofit links those in need with the resources available in the community, holds quarterly awareness events and is always looking for volunteers.
A Latino in Tech
During his time at Seminole State, Figueroa credits two women of color who especially influenced him in his career. “Dr. Janell Robinson and Arlene Gonzalez, those two women single-handedly changed the entire trajectory of my tech life and probably my overall life,” Figueroa said.
On the very first day of class Professor Robinson encouraged her students to start getting experience in the field. “She’s such an advocate for her students,” Figueroa said of Robinson. Before his class with her, Figueroa said he would look at entry technology jobs that had crazy requirements of knowing multiple programming languages, certifications and credentials, and he would feel as though he didn’t qualify. However, Robinson changed his outlook. “She said ‘Screw it all! Apply to those jobs, because no single person is going to meet all those qualifications.’ And for some reason it was as if something just clicked in my head,” said Figueroa. He started applying regardless and landed his first remote job with a web conferencing company based in New Jersey.
Career Program Advisor Arlene Gonzalez started the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA) chapter at Seminole State, encouraging Figueroa to join and apply for a scholarship. He received one of the Bank of America scholarships and was honored at the Orlando ALPFA yearly conference, where he attended the career fair, talking to Fortune 500 companies including Deloitte where he landed multiple interviews and eventually a job as a cyber and strategic risk solutions analyst. “These companies want cyber professionals so bad. I had a job 10 months ago just waiting for me, so I work for Deloitte full time now and it is definitely because of the Association of Latino Professionals for America, which would not have been possible if not for Arlene Gonzalez.”
Adding diversity has been an ongoing struggle in the technology field, and now that Figueroa is a part of it, he plans to keep moving up while making sure to help women and minorities find their place in the industry as well. “It takes us having a seat at the table to make thoughtful changes when it comes to building applications and software,” Figueroa said. “You have to give people opportunities to make impactful change.”
About Seminole State College of Florida:
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