Vanessa Alvarez is hoping to use her life experiences and the psychology training she has received at The University of Texas-Pan American to make life better for the families of current soldiers and veterans.
The 26-year-old will graduate May 14 with a degree in psychology with minors in criminal justice and sociology while her husband Sgt. Felix Alvarez Jr. is serving as a United States Marine Corps infantryman in Afghanistan.
A non-traditional student, Alvarez took courses at Texas State Technical College in 2002 after graduating from Harlingen South High School. However, she left school, got married and now has two daughters - ages 2 and 4. While on base during her husband's active duty, Alvarez saw personally the toll that combat and the separation from family can take on spouses and children. She said often in the case of wives, they are young, away from home for the first time and have to deal with small children alone on top of the stress of having a husband in combat situations or returning home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
"The divorce rates are extremely high in the military compared to the national average," she said, describing her own husband's symptoms of PTSD." I was able to deal with it but you have a lot of women who don't or who aren't able to do that and it is very hard on them to see them (spouses) waking up in the middle of the night, the cold sweats, being very reserved and not wanting to go out to even places like the mall or a restaurant."
She said she admired the work of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, with military families.
"It is a very unique population that really needs a lot of support. It's very stressful and they are really reaching out to that community. Now that 30 percent of the men and women in the military are coming back with PTSD that really sparked more research and this movement," she said.
Alvarez turned her passion to provide support for military spouses, particularly those of reservists who lack some of the support available for active duty military, into not only her professional goal, but also into a real life project to assist military families.
When she returned to school at UTPA in 2009, she chose psychology as her career path and was able to complete her course of study in two years. After graduation Alvarez plans to go on to graduate school to earn a master's in rehabilitation counseling and work with the veteran population, focusing on PTSD assessment and treatment. She is also considering applying to the Board Certified Behavioral Analyst program at UTPA which would enable her to also work with children with autism.
To help military spouses in her community, she created Semper Fidelis Carlos, a support group that assists spouses of reservists, particularly in times of deployment. Currently, there are 25 women in the group, she said, but it is also open to men whose wives are in the reserves. The group gathers to share information from phone calls they receive as well as do care packaging and other activities together. On the Semper Fidelis Carlos Facebook page, Alvarez provides information on resources, benefits, and other material supportive to military families.
"It's a lot of being there for one another because the spouse is gone," she said.
Alvarez has extended her determination and creativity toward promoting her discipline on campus and in the community as well. Her efforts were recognized when she was one of three students to be honored as a 2011 Dean's Outstanding Student in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
In her role of president of Psi Chi, the international honor society in psychology, she has excelled in increasing interest in the organization and the number of successful activities. In October 2010, the group hosted the first Mental Illness Awareness Week on campus.
"It (mental illness) is a stigma. We are trying to fight the stigma. In the Mexican American community in the Valley, people don't want to talk about it. We shouldn't be like that. It is very common. In any given year, one out of four American adults are diagnosed with a mental disorder. People should be able to talk about it. Just like people talk about cancer - you have Cancer Awareness -it should be like that with mental disorders. It is perfectly normal to be abnormal," she said.
This year she was instrumental in Psi Chi joining with the Psychology Club to start the website www.getyourpsychon.com. Alvarez is editor of the website's now quarterly newsletter "On the Couch," which features information about various psychology courses offered at UTPA, interviews with psychology department faculty members, and fun interactive quizzes and activities.
Alvarez has also found time to volunteer at campus events and with the Harlingen Boys and Girls Club and the Texas Tropical Behavioral Health. She additionally serves as assistant coach of her younger sisters' basketball team.
She said she's had lots of help from her mother-in-law and "rarely sleeps." Since her husband has decided to pursue officer candidates school and a career in the military, she may land in other places in the world than the Rio Grande Valley. However, wherever she goes, she feels UT Pan American has prepared her well through its outstanding programs and faculty.
"This has been a wonderful experience. I hear some people say 'It's just Pan Am, it's here in the Valley,' but when we are leading the nation in so many things, I feel very honored to be a part of this community. I can only hope that other students here in the Rio Grande Valley can see that they don't have to necessarily leave right now. UTPA has so much to offer," Alvarez said.
Learn more about UTPA's programs in psychology at the Department of Psychology and Anthropology website.