Growing up, I was really inquisitive; and I have always been curious about why people do what they do, feel how they feel, and make sense of the world in unique ways. I was raised hearing stories about my family emigrating from Ecuador and starting a life in the United States. As I heard the perspectives of different family members, I was intrigued by how people can witness or experience the same events and come away from them with completely different narratives. Psychology sparked my interest because it offered a pathway to answering the questions I had about people, including myself, and the world. My path led me to a PhD program in Clinical Psychology. I am in now my 3rd year, and I have two left to go! The coolest aspect of deeply studying clinical psychology is that you will almost always learn something about yourself or others, which can help make you a better person.
By the time I was in high school, I was already interested in psychology and taking college-level classes at a local university aside from my regular course load. Looking back, this was impactful because I had a head start and because I was starting to make sense of my future as a college student. Once in college, I already knew that I wanted to be a clinical psychologist someday, but I was unclear how to get there and what all it entailed. However, when I enrolled in Experimental Psychology (also commonly known as Research Methods) at the City College of New York, my perspective and career trajectory totally changed. The course was taught by Dr. Teresa Lopez-Castro, a Cuban-American full-time professor of psychology (one of less than 10 Latinas in the psychology department across the City University of New York [CUNY] system). When the course began, I had only just learned that earning a PhD in Clinical Psychology would involve research and that I would need undergraduate research experience to improve my chances of getting into a doctoral program.
Dr. Lopez-Castro’s course opened my eyes to what psychological research looks like, and I realized that all my curiosities about people and the world could be examined empirically, not just in the therapy room; I was so energized by this realization. I believe that studying clinical psychology is important because there is still so much to uncover and reconceptualize about mental health and the systems in our world that impact it. Seeing a professor that looked like me also made me realize that I could be just that: a profesora. I decided then that teaching and mentorship and increasing representation of Latinx folks in higher education was going to be a major part of my career. In addition, our mental health is a critical part of our overall well-being, along with our physical health, spiritual health, financial stability, and more.
I went on to work with Dr. TLC on my undergraduate honors thesis (Salsa for Schizophrenia), where I connected my passion for Latin dance outside of school with my love for psychology by teaching individuals with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder how to dance Salsa. I knew little about the research process, let alone how to secure grant funding for my project, so I raised funds via GoFundMe to pay my participants. The project was small and very basic, but I was so proud to integrate my culture into psychology under the mentorship of a Latina psychologist. My work with Dr. TLC empowered me to continue on to my PhD program and seek mentorship from other Latinas in the field that I can find community, strength, and love in.
In my first year of my doctoral program, I was able to enroll in the university’s first ever Spanish for Clinicians course. The class was taught entirely in Spanish, and we learned about psychological terminology, cultural factors that influence therapy with Latinx clients, and how to connect with Latinx clients in meaningful, culturally sensitive ways. I had never felt so seen at any institution; I wanted to cry the last day of class! In the second year of my doctoral program, I was accepted to one of my program’s specialty clinics called Clínica Latina where trainees conduct therapy in English and Spanish with client who identify as Latino/a/x/e. I received weekly supervision in Spanish and worked with peers who all spoke Spanish, most of which were actually Latinx themselves. While I trained there, I felt so honored to be able to see clients who would otherwise not be able to attend therapy because of how expensive it is and how hard it is to find someone who speaks Spanish. Only 5.5% of psychologists provide services in Spanish. I did assessments and therapy and Spanish and even wrote letters in support of my clients’ immigration procedures.
These two experiences were impactful to me because I was able to be in community with other colleagues who shared some of my identities. Support makes graduate school so much more manageable. In addition, I was able to see firsthand that my presence in academia does matter. Representation is needed, and it feels empowering to take up space. My support system in graduate school is a group of badass women of color - all of whom are doing amazing work. I would not be able to get through my doctoral program without them. We listen to and support each other; we inspire and collaborate with one another; there is love and care through and through. Being across the country from most of my family has underscored the importance of a “chosen family” and I’m so blessed with the one I have! Having women that look like me doing the work that I find so important has been invaluable for me. There is one more woman who has also been there for me – always.
My mother was my primary role model and instilled the importance of education for me and my brother at a very young age. College was always the goal, in her mind, which became a part of my mind and heart as well. Graduate school is a hard-earned gift for both me and my mother who raised my brother and me alone with the support of my grandmother. Growing up, my family really emphasized education and independence. My grandmother and mother both had dreams of ambitious careers that were cut short because of the pressure to uphold gendered stereotypes (e.g., get married, raise children, etc.). In many ways though, the women in my family have crushed those norms, and always encouraged me to do the same.
As a young girl, I was told by my mother that I would probably have to work twice as hard as other people because they might underestimate me. In an age-appropriate way, she was preparing me to deal with the inequity I see today in academia as a Latina woman. Working hard was modeled to me by my single mother who worked two to three jobs to provide for my brother and me. From my mother, I learned how to stay organized, make well thought out decisions, and be efficient. I learned to use “corporate” language and write proper emails by listening to my mom talk on the phone while I did my homework at her various office jobs throughout my youth. While my mother may have felt like she was inconveniencing her employers by bringing her kids to work, she was indirectly exposing me to skills that I still use today. For my graduate school interviews, I wore a suit that she owned.
When I shared that I would be the first in my family to pursue advanced degrees, my family was incredibly supportive. While I stressed about whether I’d get into graduate school, my family had no doubts that I would be accepted. Culture definitely influenced my decision to move across the country for graduate school, but it ultimately did not change it. Leaving the state for my education was something that no one else in my family had done, and I dealt with guilt and pressure. It was hard for my family to accept that I would be so far away, and adjusting to being away from them was challenging for me as well. For various reasons, not all of my family members truly understand what I am studying in graduate school or what my day-to-day really looks like, but they are supportive nonetheless. My grandma never misses an opportunity to tell her friends that her granddaughter is studying to be a doctora. And my family is proud that I am able to serve my community.
As far as advice for those aspiring Latino/a students, I’d say that community at home and in higher education is extremely important. Find your people! The most essential aspect of my “grad school survival” strategy is my support network. I stay connected to my loved ones in so many different ways - weekly study sessions with my grad school squad, FaceTime dates with my childhood friends, regular calls to my mom and grandmother, yoga or running meet-ups with friends, Salsa classes in my community. All of these interactions help me feel filled up, loved, and supported. Importantly, be more than a student. Consider all of who you are, not just your role as a student and make sure that you actively cultivate those identities (schedule it if you have to). If you identify as a runner, make sure you’re honoring that part of you. If being a sister is important to you, find ways that will make YOU feel fulfilled in that role. It can be disheartening to lose yourself in a program. Therefore, I am certain that comunidad and nurturing the real you, along with the help of others, can help you reach your highest ambitions across all levels of educación.