This story is part of a continuing series that features Hispanic leaders at USF during Hispanic Heritage Month.
With just a backpack and a heart full of faith and courage, Maria Clara Novoa took a plane alongside her brother to Brazil to attend the 28th World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro — an experience that shaped her passion for service for years to come.
Novoa was only 14 years old by the time of the trip, but despite her age, she said it was one of the best experiences of her life.
“[The trip] helped me find what I’m passionate about, like my faith and serving others because we also had a missionary week,” Novoa said. “Being a leader, too, because over there we did our groups, and my brother and I were the ones who were helping out everyone else.
“Personally, I grew a lot as a person because being in another culture and [with] other people, we got more cultural awareness, and I just love Brazilian people.”
Her experiences in Brazil, as well as her roots from growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, helped Novoa, an alum from the USF St. Pete campus, develop her interest in service as well as her perseverance to pursue leadership roles in her community.
Novoa moved to the U.S. in 2016 after graduating from high school to study English for six months. What was supposed to be a short stay ended up extending and providing her with new opportunities.
“I know opportunities started to come one by one and I had to take them, I didn’t want to lose so many opportunities [I’ve] been able to get here,” Novoa said. “So yeah, I’m still here for that reason.”
She decided to pursue her associate’s degree at St. Petersburg College (SPC) in 2016, where she enjoyed all the chances presented to leave her own mark and stand out among her peers. Among her achievements, she was named student of the year and the most engaged international student in spring 2018 and received the Global Citizen Commencement Medallion.
When her time at SPC was done, she started a psychology degree with a minor in leadership at USF St. Pete in 2019. After graduating in May, Novoa continued working as a registered behavioral technician providing behavioral therapy for children with autism.
Sebastián Amado, Novoa’s boyfriend, said her dedication to serving is mirrored by her family values.
“She works at a clinic doing therapy for autistic kids. It’s all about helping others, in one way or another,” Amado said. “The whole point of everything is her willingness or desire to build a better community.”
While she has adapted to her life in the U.S. and has a job now, she experienced a culture shock after she visited Colombia, a year later from when she arrived in the U.S. The differences, however, made her miss her country and culture even more.
“I was not expecting myself to actually have a cultural shock until then, because it was right when I got to the airport, and my mom hugged me and I was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t felt hugged for a long time,’” Novoa said. “That was when I was like, ‘Wow, I understand that social interactions are completely different here.’”
As time went on, she noticed she was becoming more of an independent person. Although her Colombian roots have always had a strong influence on her life, she said she started developing different traits based on her new life in the U.S.
“Now, after being here for this long enough after finishing college, I can tell myself when I go back that I am also starting to be different from my own people … because I am very independent now.
“I’ve learned to be so independent … because of the circumstances. But it was more by choice. ‘I want to leave my parents’ house’ kind of thing. But I have felt that I’m more independent. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person [and] learned to also get to know myself a lot, too.”
Lucero McChord, Novoa’s aunt, welcomed Novoa into her house in Brandon for three months after arriving from Colombia in 2016. McChord said Tata, Novoa’s nickname, has a contagious personality and is able to achieve anything she sets her mind to.
“She has been raised in a good Christian family, with a mother and father that encouraged her and helped her a lot,” McChord said. “So this girl gives you 100% on whatever she needs to do, to achieve what she wants [and] to help other people, too.
“Whatever you need, whatever you ask, she is right there, [going] the extra mile. Whatever it takes to help, she’s always there.”
Her passion and involvement to serve the community were cultivated in her school back in Colombia, where she was taught from a young age how to help others and serve her own community. During her time at school, Novoa said she and her classmates would help low-income families in Colombia through donations and service, an experience that helped her build her foundation for years to come.
She also often went on missions in small towns across the country to help the community through food drives and toy donations during Christmas time, among others.
Her motto, inspired by Saint Ignatius de Loyola, was to “be more to serve more” based on the values of love and service. She said such values taught her the importance of giving back to her community in any way she can.
“[Interacting with kids] was so much fun, and your love for life just grows and grows more every time you do things like that. So I think that’s why I’m very passionate about it.”
Novoa said her service experience as a girl in Colombia helped her find new opportunities to engage and serve her local community in St. Petersburg. One of them was the Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA) center, a domestic violence center for women, children and men in Pinellas County.
Alongside a group of five classmates, Novoa developed a project to raise donations for CASA during the pandemic. The group collected over 100 items ranging from hygiene products like shampoo, soap and hand sanitizers to clothing.
“We learned how to work in groups and what we could do in the future for the same objective,” Novoa said. “It was a really nice learning experience to work as a team and also make things work during a pandemic, [which] was the challenge.”
Novoa also worked at the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater with undocumented and low-income families. There she played with kids and interacted with families while building a sense of community.
“Life really makes sense in those moments. I really appreciate older people coming together to do something for other people in older communities that need it, and I love that feeling,” Novoa said. “I love the passion. Those are the things that really stick with me when I volunteer.
“In general, when you have that energy, the community energy that you just see, there’s so much like that out there in the world. Everybody is serving for the same objective and the same purpose.”
Love for the community and faith made her treasure her roots and culture even more after she moved to the U.S.
“I always wanted to, and even today, I still want to do something for my country. If I ever get the chance to do a nonprofit, anything that could help [I’d love to,] because I know how my country struggles,” she said. “But I have always appreciated so much the people, our culture and how unique we all are in certain ways.”
One of the most impactful moments for Novoa when volunteering was in Colombia, when she met a young girl full of burns on her face. Despite the pain she might have gone through, Novoa said the girl’s spirit and genuine heart made her realize the importance of valuing the small moments of light in life.
“It’s incredible to know that the less these people have, the more happy they are too. [That moment for me is] just a constant reminder,” Novoa said.
Her positive outlook on life is also a reason Amado admires her. He said she has kept her head held high despite any setbacks.
“She’s such a positive person, no matter what she’s going through,” Amado said. “Anything, the circumstances, you will always see her with a smile on her face. I’ve seen her lows, and she still has the positive mentality, and not just with her but with the people around her.”
Novoa’s Latin roots and the values instilled in her since a young age have guided her wherever she goes. She said the attributes of “guerrera,” which means fighter in Spanish, have given her the motivation and drive to fight for her goals and persevere through the challenges encountered along the way.
“Latinos don’t give up and we really work for what we want,” Novoa said. “We help each other in every way that we can. I love that we also understand each other. I feel like we do care and have been in other people’s shoes somehow and that has also helped us to be a community [in the U.S.].
“I’m very proud to be Colombian too because of how joyful we are. … We really take the best out of every situation, and I just love that. Whatever bad thing happens, we just laugh about it, find a solution and move on. That’s why I think I’m very proud to be Colombian [and] Latina.”