A Call for Future Leaders

by Eva Reyes, Development Communications

Sarah Souza MA '17, a graduate of USF’s McCarthy Fellowship program, works for one of the highest-ranking public servants in San Francisco, Supervisor Aaron Peskin. She shares how she uses the community-building practices passed onto her by USF mentors to amplify the voices of non-citizens in political spaces.

Sarah Souza MA '17 immigrated to the US from her home in Brazil at the age of 15. Learning English and Spanish simultaneously was the first of many obstacles in her ability to make friends, order coffee, and have a life in this country – and yet, her immigrant status soon became a vehicle for greater capacity building in San Francisco.

USF’s McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good was founded in 2002 to commemorate social justice champion, Leo T. McCarthy. The center, which commits itself to instilling the values of its founder, provides scholarships in support of educating younger generations to be active vessels for change in their communities.

Souza, who received her master’s degree in urban and public affairs through USF’s McCarthy Center, had yet to navigate the college experience until she arrived at the university. As an undergraduate student without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program providing temporary relief from deportation for people who were brought into the country as undocumented children, she needed to work full-time to support her academic pursuits.

“For what felt like the first time, I gained a sense of community at USF and found that my success was ultimately prioritized through my program,” said Souza.

In her time at USF, she was surrounded by peers who were equally impassioned by the work needed to improve San Francisco’s political and social climate. Learning that she had a support system dedicated to developing policies that would allow Souza and other non-citizens to do such work, gave her the ability to thrive in this environment.

Committing to a Vision

Souza's immigrant experience impacts her career priorities long after her time as a graduate student. As a Legislative Aide for Supervisor Aaron Peskin, she leads with the confidence and values instilled in her through the fellowship program. With the help of a diverse coalition, Souza fought a ballot measure in 2020, granting her and other non-citizens the right to serve on political commissions impacting their communities.

“When I first started in politics, I had already labeled myself as a non-citizen. With the community support and engagement that I experienced, I learned that I had a seat at the table,” says Souza. “It was then that I knew that I also wanted a turn at the mic to ensure that immigrants could sit on commissions and participate in our democracy.”

Her early work continues to mirror the impact that McCarthy had in one of his first roles as an administrative aide.

Celebrating Legacies of Compassion

This year, USF commemorates two decades of cultivating community-engaged leaders through the McCarthy fellowship program. The vigor of this academic setting and the passion of its educators is what Souza says sets them apart from other university programs.

“Lisa Feldstein, a USF writing professor who helped guide my capstone, would sit with me and provide mentorship and look at complex issues with me– often simplifying them so that I could better understand my role in tackling them,” shared Souza.

Feldstein helped her build the confidence and knowledge to keep fighting in spaces where women of color had to work to prove themselves. Souza credits the help of such mentors in learning to take up the work that matters to her within public policy, regardless of an issue's complexity.

“There’s a call for leaders who can reconnect us to our humanity to deliver significant changes in our community,” said Souza.

As she continues to lead by example, she encourages students to find a personal mission grounded in showing compassion and kindness to those in our communities who need it most.

To learn how you can impact USF's McCarthy Center in support of student like Souza, contact or visit