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Chico State

Introducing Stephanie Gaito: 2023 Lt. Rawlins Merit Scholarship Recipient

Stephanie Gaito leans on a stool and smiles
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Stephanie Gaito, one of the 2022-2023 recipients of the Lieutenant Robert Merton Rawlins Merit Award, is photographed on Friday, January 27, 2023 in Chico, Calif. Each year, faculty members nominate students based on their scholarship, involvement in extracurricular activities, and outstanding accomplishments. Nominations are based on these standards, along with evidence of students’ sincere intent to complete their education, increase their personal knowledge, and to achieve success in every aspect of their lives. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/Chico State)

In the coming weeks, we will be celebrating the accomplishments and stories behind this year’s Lt. Rawlins Merit Scholarship Recipients. The award—one of the largest and most prestigious at Chico State—celebrates scholarship, extracurricular activities, and outstanding academic, and professional accomplishments.

Stephanie Gaito is committed to helping the underserved, advocating for equity, and working tirelessly to give voice to those who are not heard. Fueled by a passion for research and field work, Gaito (Social Work, ’22) graduated last year with honors (she was in the top 5 percent of her cohort) and is currently enrolled in Chico State’s Master of Arts in Social Work (MSW) program. Additionally, she is being honored as a recipient of the 41st annual Lt. Merton Rawlins Merit Award.

As part of her field placement, she works at Hill Country Community Clinic in Redding, a comprehensive health care center with services including behavioral health, dental, medical, chiropractic, case managers, outreach teams, and medication assisted treatment for substance use. There, she leads individual therapy with adults and is inspired daily by her clients. Having navigated through her own trauma in her early years, Gaito chose this line of work because these are the kind of people who made the biggest difference in her life by actively listening to her.

“I’ll never forget those teachers, counselors, and mentors I’ve met throughout my life,” she said. “And now, for me, my greatest opportunity is to help other people and be a resource for them.”

What does receiving the Rawlins Award mean to you?

This scholarship is so important because it is helping to fund my graduate education. As a first-generation college student, my undergrad degree was a big deal for me. The master’s degree is something I was able to dream into reality because of the support and mentorship I received at Chico State. Getting this recognition from faculty that I respect means so much. It’s truly an honor.

Is there a faculty member that stands out for you during your time at Chico State?

Dr. Judy Vang, a professor who teaches research and social work, has been a total mentor for me. She just believes in me. Even when I thought that I was going off the walls and getting too granular with my research, she tells me that she loves my big-picture brain and how I see things from a bird’s-eye view. And that’s really important in social work—to create the most impactful social change, we have to be able to understand issues from a systems perspective. The way that she approaches research and how she puts her efforts into so many projects, and all of them get equal level of importance, she’s just a super woman.

Why did you choose Chico State?

I’m super passionate about rural areas. We represent such an amazing part of California. We have all these rural populations that have unique needs, and I think they deserve a proper representation. Chico State, to me, is a hallmark of this area. We get all these awesome students from surrounding areas that come from many different walks of life, many different cultures, and that really helps to shape this community and Chico State, at large. My hope is that we continue to build upon our service delivery to those rural populations. I also love the social work department here, I’ve met people who really believe that there is beauty to be celebrated in everyone.