When Marlaine Monroig Garcia came to the University of Georgia as a potential doctoral student, she wasn't sure if the program would be a good fit.
But during her interview as part of the UGA College of Education's counseling psychology program, she found kinship with a student one year ahead of her—the only Latina student in the program at UGA. This connection helped seal the deal for Monroig Garcia, and three years ago she began her studies in Athens.
Since then, though, Monroig Garcia has enjoyed a front-row seat as the number of Latinx students in the program multiplied. Now, as she makes plans to begin her fourth and final year of the program through an internship at the VA in West Palm Beach, Florida, she and her fellow students are celebrating the doors they helped open for future Latinx students in the program.
"I was the only Latinx student in my master's program cohort," she said. "Now, there are three in my cohort, two in the following cohort and three in the newest cohort. There are three more that have accepted and are coming this fall. So now we have this huge diverse team, which includes a high number of Latinx students led by a Latinx professor—which is unique to many Ph.D. programs nationally."
To celebrate, she and Marjory Vazquez, the student who encouraged her to come to UGA, organized the Latinx doctoral students in the College of Education's counseling psychology program for a special photo shoot with fellow student and photographer Shawntell Pace, complete with on-location shots and custom T-shirts. It's a passing of the torch, so to speak, as Vazquez graduates and Monroig Garcia and another student prepare to leave for internships, leaving more than a half-dozen students to continue to develop their familia.
While it's important for students of color to make connections and find support as they move through higher education, doctoral students face a unique set of challenges, said Monroig Garcia. Many are first-generation college students to begin with, and in seeking a terminal degree in their field, they can't always rely on family members for support and guidance. Finding mentors in the field is also a challenge—it's important to be able to connect with someone who has a shared cultural experience as you navigate the challenges that come with the degree.
Also, for many first-generation students seeking a graduate degree, there's a bit of "imposter syndrome" that can also turn paralyzing—the fear of not being qualified, or of not belonging among equally qualified classmates.
Across UGA, students who identify as Hispanic comprise a fraction of the overall student population. Among all enrolled students, Hispanic students total 5.5%; among graduate students, it's less than 2%.
Ed Delgado-Romero, Monroig Garcia's advisor and professor in the department of counseling and human development services, addressed this issue in a recent issue of the American Psychological Association's Monitor on Psychology magazine. Often, students and early-career psychologists from underrepresented backgrounds can face challenges finding a mentor; Delgado-Romero and others offered ideas on helping to turn the tide on this issue.
"Young people find it refreshing to talk to someone who they don't have to convince that their experiences are real," he said. Delgado-Romero knows this because he sees it every day, as a mentor to students at all stages of the master's and doctoral levels. Not only do students look for career advice, but they also look for professionals who understand the cultural component of their work.
That's why the influx of Latinx students in the counseling psychology program was so uplifting for Monroig Garcia and others. Coming from South Florida and Puerto Rico, she wasn't sure what her experiences would be like in a smaller town such as Athens. But, she said, her time here has been enriched thanks to the connections and collaborations she's made with other Latinx graduate students. They understand each other's drive for research in certain areas, for example, and serve as a sounding board, support system and even an extended family.
She also credits Delgado-Romero for fostering a community where she and others feel welcomed and valued. "You're supported in what you're passionate about," she said. "Overall, I've had a really good experience and a lot of it has to do with finding a home here."
She and other students have been able to grow a free Spanish-language counseling clinic, La Clinica, supervised by Delgado-Romero. Also, through Delgado-Romero's ¡BIEN! Research Team, Latinx students are able to expand their knowledge and research into previously understudied areas.
"As a team we've tried to emphasize connections locally, nationally and internationally," added Monroig Garcia. As the founder of the National Latinx Psychological Association, Delgado-Romero has motivated his students to also be involved in the organization. For example, last year more than 20 team members, including alumni and current students, attended the organization's conference in San Diego. It encouraged Monroig Garcia to run for student representative of the organization, a position she now holds.
Overall, she said, students at varying years of the doctoral program find an extension of their family through a faculty member and fellow students.
"It's things like that that I probably wouldn't have been able to experience in other programs," she said. "It's embedded into this program more than in other programs because I've had this space to grow my passions and I feel 100% supported by my team."
And so, on a sunny spring afternoon, the students gathered on the steps of Aderhold Hall for a celebration of the progress that's been made. It's not without its faults—Latinos, in particular, are less likely than Latinas to enter graduate programs. But as the students stood in black T-shirts bearing the message "Latina/o: Educated, Proud and Powerful," they knew it was a moment to recognize.
"It's to celebrate how far we've come and to celebrate Latina/o students in Ph.D. programs, and also celebrate D-R, because he's the one that helped this community in general," Monroig Garcia said. "We're proud of where we're going."
Photos by Shawntell Pace.