“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”
This quote, by author Charles R. Swindoll, shaped the words, actions and life of James Borunda, Jr. Situations in his upbringing challenged him, but how he reacted to it changed the course of his life. Those actions brought him to the present day where he can now officially call himself a Master of Social Work. Earlier this month, Borunda was among the hundreds of students to earn a graduate degree from Fresno State.
Although Borunda’s dreams of becoming a social worker happened later in his life, the circumstances experienced in his younger years served as the catalyst to get him there. During his senior year of high school in particular, he recalls hanging out with the wrong crowd – gang members who wanted to recruit him into their circle. Borunda ultimately chose not to pursue that life, but the decision left him with a stab wound to his lung and a slim chance of survival. His recovery hindered his ability to finish high school, so he eventually dropped out and earned his GED instead.
“During this time, the Twin Towers were struck down [on 9/11] and I enlisted in the U.S. Navy,” Borunda said. “The choice was a very hard one, but I felt a strong sense of duty to my country; perhaps I was atoning for my mistakes as a wannabe gang member.”
While in the military, Borunda received a kind of recognition he wasn’t accustomed to – respect and leadership. It drove him to achieve four years in service before eventually leaving for civilian life, with his new little family – a wife and son – in tow. Back in southwest Fresno, he spent his spare time coaching youth football. It was in those moments that he found his true purpose and his calling that would eventually lead him to the social work field.
“The kids I coached were from impoverished communities and I often had to provide food and necessities they lacked,” Borunda said. “I saw my own childhood in some of these children and that incited me to pursue a career that could help alter the course of marginalized communities.”
Since 2016, Borunda has been making waves in the social work profession on and off campus as a student, advocate, leader and ally. As an undergraduate student, he led the Social Work Student Association as president and helped to coordinate DACA marches throughout the Central Valley, as well as a social justice symposium about intersectionality – all areas deeply personal to him.
He continued building on his leadership roles while pursuing graduate studies in the Master of Social Work program, where he served as the Region D assistant director of the National Association for Social Workers (NASW). In that role, he served as president of 23 Strong, a student political council for NASW that aspires to develop student voter advocacy models at all 23 CSU campuses.
Borunda says that experience embolded him to take a deeper political role at Fresno State, from organizing a congressional candidate forum to educating fellow students on the importance of voting in elections. In 2018, he and fellow students and faculty coordinated Bring Your Own Ballot, a non-partisan voter education event that showed students how to fill out ballots and informed them of what propositions were being voted on at the time. Together, they collected over 100 ballots to be turned in. The event was such a success that local nonprofit, Central Valley Partnership, reached out to get involved. Borunda later led a group of fellow graduate students to canvass neighborhoods to educate communities about the importance of local elections. Borunda says Fresno State taught him a lot about what real advocacy is.
He later took his knowledge and grass root efforts to Indonesia where he, and a group of 14 other social work students, presented their research at the International Consortium for Social Development in the summer of 2019. Borunda presented on voter advocacy and education. He is proud of his individual work, but more importantly his collaborative work with his peers. Together, they received the Council on Social Work Education’s Partners in Education Award, which honors those that are helping to advance education for international social work. They were the first-ever student group to receive the prestigious honor. They also worked together to raise $60,000 in travel and scholarship dollars to attend the conference.
“I can honestly say in my whole academic career working in different universities for 10 years now, I have never come across a student who has as strong leadership skills as James,” said Dr. Dheeshana Jayasundara, associate professor in the Department of Social Work Education. “He is a born leader and an advocate. He has a strong sense of social justice and uncanny ability to engage students at a level I have not seen before. I have no doubt he will be a leader in our field one day.”
Going forward, Borunda strives to continue his advocacy work beyond the campus community. In fact, his goal is to one day run for congress to proudly represent his community – district 22.
“Although my time as a student has come to an end, I know the real work begins after I graduate,” Borunda said. “I hope to one day make positive change at a larger level creating and changing policies that impact my community. I am paving the way already.”
Through it all, one thing is certain – he is going after his goals with 100% commitment.