Italee Castellon

Portrait of Italee Castellon

Resiliency Pays Off

Italee Castellon ’19 grew up the child of a single mother in a large Mexican-American family. Her neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, she says, saw more than its share of violence, gangs, and drugs. “The first thing you’re taught is don’t talk to strangers, don’t look anybody in the eye. But I’ve always loved people. So here I was, this weird toddler who would make friends with anybody and everybody.”

Finding Her Groove in Social Work

Italee was the first in her family to go to college and the first to leave Chicago. At Luther, she found her groove in social work. She remembers an early class visit to a prison during which students talked to a panel of inmates. “A lot of people were asking pretty normal questions, but I raised my hand and asked, ‘Before you got into trouble, what was your childhood dream?’ It caught them off guard. They were stunned for a second, then said, ‘No one’s ever asked us that before.’” They urged her to become a social worker.

A Major Setback

That was indeed her plan, but sadly, a family tragedy would test her resolve earlier and far more brutally than she ever expected.

In April of her sophomore year, she was working on campus when she got some devastating news. Her mother had died unexpectedly, leaving behind Italee’s one-year-old sister, Cali. “Obviously, I’m not the only person who’s lost a parent,” she says, “but I am one of the few who’s gained a child at the same time.”

Italee’s cousins came to pick her up and they drove through the night, arriving in Chicago just as the sun was rising. From there, Italee was plunged into a chaotic period of consulting lawyers and charities and making lots of decisions with the support of her extended family. In addition to identifying her mother’s body and planning and hosting a funeral, Italee says, “My mother didn’t have any life insurance, she didn’t have a job, she had bills in my name I didn’t even know about.” And, most importantly, there was Cali to consider.

Embracing Her One Shot

At just nineteen, as a college sophomore, Italee adopted her sister, placed her in custody with family members, then returned to Luther two weeks later to finish her degree. It was a hard decision, but she knew it was the only way forward, telling herself, “This is my one shot—I can’t let this go. If I do, my mom’s going to haunt me my whole life!”

This is my one shot.

Italee Castellon '19


Italee made the most of her “one shot,” embracing volunteer and other opportunities. She became a youth mentor through Luther’s PALS program and through Helping Services of Decorah. She volunteered as a translator at Decorah’s Riverview Center and First Lutheran Food Pantry. She was selected as the first social work major to participate in Luther’s Social Impact Fellowship, a grant-funded program that partners a social work student with a business student to research a problem and develop a business plan to address it. She was also co-founder and first president of Latines Unides, a student organization that supports Hispanic/Latino students and celebrates their culture.

A Bright Future Ahead

After graduating from Luther, Italee pursued her master’s degree in social work at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa. She plans to get settled in a counseling career and arrange for her sister to live with her, even if she’s not exactly sure where yet. “I need a stable job, stable housing, and a good school district for Cali,” she says. “I’ll go anywhere that meets those criteria, as long as it’s nice.”