Humans of CASE: Johayra Witter

Inspired by Humans of New York, where Brandon Stanton shares short stories of hundreds of New Yorkers, we went on a quest to find students, alumni, faculty and staff within the CASE community who make us see the world in a different light. This is one in a series we’ve titled, Humans of CASE.

Growing up, Johayra Witter had friends who repeatedly showed up to class covered in cuts and bruises. She remembers feeling powerless to help them, wondering: “Why won’t the teacher do anything?”

It wasn’t until college that she realized that the things she saw and the things that happened to her friends weren’t normal.

“Nobody cared. We were just the kids who were going to fall into the background anyway and fill up the jails and get pregnant at an early age. We were what I like to call, the expendables.”

Born on a military base in Georgia – with a stint in Bridgeport, Connecticut before moving to Homestead – Witter was raised in a single parent household. Of Puerto Rican decent, she was the first in her family born in the United States. For her, becoming an adult was a ‘privilege’ that was not taken for granted. Once she made it, she was determined to find a way to change the reality she initially perceived as the norm for other children like her.

Thanks to a scholarship from the Honors College, Witter graduated from FIU with a degree in psychology in the Spring of 2011. She remembers thinking she wanted something really different for her graduate degree. With the help of a friend, she found a representative that helped her apply to programs in the United Kingdom.

“I want to get out of here and have some sort of experience in life. My family was skeptical. But my mom was the rebel for leaving the island and joining the military so imagine I was [now] the rebel for leaving to Europe for school.”

Despite the pushback from her family, she went on to pursue her master’s in abnormal and clinical psychology from Swansea University in Whales, United Kingdom.

“It was me with a bunch of brand new people who even though we [technically] spoke the same language, we [really] didn’t speak the same language. No one had met a Puerto Rican before so it was hard in a lot of ways.”

The European clothing line didn’t accommodate Witter’s curves. She was often rebuked for speaking too loudly, even though she considered herself quiet for a Hispanic. Every day was an adjustment. 

“It was a one-year intensive program. They also place a lot of emphasis on different things so it was cool to see how a University over there functions vs. one in the states. Just an overall different lifestyle,” Witter said.

Once she completed her degree she returned home and landed a volunteer position with an organization that worked primarily with domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, a lot of the coursework from her master’s was not enough for licensure in Florida. Her boss recommended FIU’s Counselor Education Program since it would serve as a good refresher and give her the tools she needed to be successful in the field.

Witter juggled her part-time coursework with working full-time and interning in her spare time. Towards the end of her program, she unexpectedly took on one last role that shifted her identity completely.

“I never thought I’d have kids, but I met my current partner right when he was in the middle of a custody battle… that was rough.”

In spite of it all, Witter finished a program that takes the average full-time student three years and completed it in four. Having her step-daughter at graduation was the icing on the cake.

“I wanted her to know this is normal. You graduate, you work, you do this, you do that. I feel like we all have our battles in life and we have our grand victories that we’re meant to achieve. One of mine was getting over my anxiety and being able to be myself – I had this sense of inadequacy my entire life and I’m very proud of how far I’ve come along.”

As a mental health therapist for Kristi House, her day-to-day is always different. She drives to schools to meet with kids, has them come into her office for a session or travels for at-home meetings with parents. She works with the trauma population, specifically with victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect.

One of the most challenging parts of her field is working with an unrelenting range of cases that drain her emotional well-being.

To help maintain her spirit and perspective, she keeps herself active with things that bring her joy like cosplay and rock climbing. Witter also volunteers regularly with her sorority, Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc. and serves on their South Florida Board.

“When I joined there weren’t many of us. I was the fifth line [in my chapter], I think there was a total of 40 people in the history of the chapter. And I was the first person in the chapter that was very alternative, with tattoos, purple hair… but looking back now we have other sisters who are just like me.”

Her alternative lifestyle is something she embraces head-on and gives her a professional edge.

“I work with children and low income individuals. If I show up looking corporate, I’m going to intimidate them and they’re going to feel like we have nothing to relate on. It’s not as if I’m out here being unprofessional.”

Witter was the first in her family to receive a graduate degree. She credits FIU for her success because of the flexibility to take a couple of classes at a time and the opportunity to take them online.

She uses her past as motivation to succeed now and in the future: “One of the things that people don’t teach you is that you really just have to let life kick your [butt] a little bit. It’s okay to not get it right. Rejection and failure are part of the beautiful fabric we’re all cut out to be.”