Rafaela Gonzalez wants to care for people inside and out, as individuals and in communities.
So she's majoring in sociology, minoring in psychology and doing community outreach for the Working Cities Challenge-Lowell, which aims to improve health and economic opportunities for residents of the city's Acre neighborhood. She's also started her own business, GloryScent, making organic skin and hair care products.
"I feel like I'm in a season of learning," she says. "I like to encourage people and give them hope - especially teenagers when they have problems and people aren't actually listening."
That describes Gonzalez's own teenage years. A native of the Dominican Republic, she and her brother moved to Lowell to live with their father when she was 6 years old. She missed her mother terribly, and her father had little experience caring for children.
"I don't blame him for not knowing what to do with us," she says. "When I came into my teenage years, our relationship was very rocky; there was no communication. The day came when he snapped and I snapped - and I ran away."
She ran to the house of her pastor, Danneza Torres of the Hispanic Community Church. Torres and her husband became Gonzalez's foster parents. She thrived under their care, graduating with high marks from Lowell High School and earning her associate's degree in human services at Middlesex Community College before transferring to UMass Lowell.
Gonzalez launched GloryScent in summer 2017 with help from the Entrepreneurship For All 12-week business accelerator program in Lowell. She was inspired by her decision to stop straightening her own hair and wearing extensions - because they didn't fit with her active lifestyle.
"I identify as an Afro-Latina, and in my culture, you're expected to wear your hair straight," she says. "I went through an epiphany. I decided that I wanted to be myself and I didn't want to hide anything, but it was very difficult because I didn't know how to manage or care for my natural hair."
Gonzalez sells her soaps and oils through her website and at craft fairs, and she will soon add a traditional Dominican hair oil to her product line.
She's not sure what comes after graduation, but says she's open to any opportunity that involves helping people. Still, she's already achieved one major goal: bringing her mother to Lowell. They now share an apartment.
"I petitioned for her to join me a year ago," she says. "She just arrived in November, so that was a great accomplishment."