The first Latina and woman of color elected president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Melba Vasquez surely possesses an above-average skill for leadership. But the oldest child of seven children points to being a member of a supportive family and Mexican American community as her sources of strength. Her parents, themselves unable to finish high school, encouraged Vasquez to excel in school. There, she found support, and mentorship from influential teachers.
Vasquez became the first person in her family to earn a college degree. After teaching middle school for a couple of years she went on to earn a master’s degree Despite her achievements, a Ph.D. seemed unreachable. However, with support of her community, she earned her doctorate degree in 1978.
I had never considered a doctorate, and was a bit shy about my ability to assume the identity of someone who could. But the support of professors, students, family and funding from the American Psychological Association (APA) Minority Fellowship Program all combined to make a difference. Ultimately, I was encouraged to apply to the program by a professor who herself was a graduate of the Educational Psychology program at UT Austin.
My two dissertation advisors, Drs. Gary Hansen and Earl Koile, were amazingly supportive and instructive. Dr. Ira Iscoe, director of the University Counseling and Mental Health Center, was a mentor who continuously checked on me, and encouraged practicum and internship experiences at the UT Counseling Center. Dr. Lucia Gilbert was an inspiration in learning how to conduct research in areas like the psychology of women and ethnic minorities. And Dr. June Gallessich was a powerful role model.
Although there were very few minority faculty in the college at the time (none in counseling psychology), our professors were helpful in encouraging connections with minority faculty across the country.
When I did struggle with my studies, I remember thinking that I could not and would not let all those people down, so I persisted! I realize, in retrospect, how very important that solid identity of family and community has been. I didn’t feel that I had just one mentor; I felt “mentored” in various ways at various times by various people!
Dr. Colleen Conoley, my mentor at Texas State University, determined that the program would be a good fit for me, and that I would be a good fit for the profession. Fortunately, she was right! The program, at the time, was one of a few accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA)—a mark of quality and commitment to the field of psychology.
Life After UT
After graduation, I served as a psychologist at the university counseling center, directed the internship training program, and taught in the counseling psychology doctoral program at Colorado State University and later, the University of Texas. After 13 years, I embarked upon full-time independent practice while continuing active involvement in scholarship, mentoring, professional leadership and advocacy.
I fell in love with professional leadership activities, which culminated in my election as the first Latina and woman of color elected president of the APA in 2011. The APA is the largest psychological organization in the world, with a membership of over 130,000 people; it has a staff of almost 600 and a multimillion dollar budget. During my term as president, I supported three major initiatives that resulted in three different cutting-edge evidence-based reports on immigration, discrimination and diversity, and on educational disparities. In fact, one of the major themes of the 2011 APA convention was social justice. Service, advocacy and mentoring have always been tenets of my professional life, and I have been fortunate to receive over 40 awards for work in these important areas.
I have published and edited extensively. I co-authored three books: Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling (Pope & Vasquez, 5th edition in process), How to Survive and Thrive as a Therapist (Pope & Vasquez, 2005), and APA Ethics Code Commentary and Case Illustrations (2010, Campbell, Vasquez, Behnke & Kinscherff). I have published more than 80 journal articles and book chapters, and served on the editorial boards of 10 journals. I am currently writing a book on multicultural therapy for an APA Theories of Psychotherapy Monograph series.
I am very lucky to have a spouse, Jim Miller, who has been consistently supportive. He was an educator and school principal, and his second career was as a clinical social worker; we have been in practice together since 1991. I am also happy to report that my mother obtained a bachelor’s degree while I was in graduate school, and each of my six siblings have obtained a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.
Advice for Students
Find ways to be active in whatever aspects of your work for which you feel passion. Take risks, persist and allow for imperfections (everyone makes mistakes—learn from them!). Identify strengths and resilience in yourself and in those with whom you work. Understand that pain is sometimes a part of life. Have confidence, stand up for yourself, and have a stance of openness to those different from you. Behave ethically in all that you do. Articulate the value of diversity, engage in self-care, and support and connect with others. And remember to observe models and mentors.