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Q & A with Virginia Bennett Award Recipient Vanessa Ramirez, Psy.M.

Ramirez GSAPP recently recognized Vanessa Ramirez’s numerous achievements by presenting her with the Virginia Bennett Award. The annual award memorializes Virginia Bennett, past chair of the School Psychology program. Vanessa(5th yr, Clinical) earned this honor through her academic and applied passion for alleviating the problems of ethnic minority children.

Q: What can you tell me about the Virginia Bennett Award?

A: Well, my understanding is that it is for individuals who have done a lot of work with ethnic minority clients, so recipients have typically devoted most of their time to improving the mental health or academic functioning of children, families and adults. I was generously awarded a commemorative plaque as well as a financial prize.

Q: What has lead to your passion for working with minority children?

A: I think it was my own personal background—I grew up in a predominantly immigrant ethnic-minority, low income community, where there were multiple stressors affecting individuals’ psychological and academic functioning, but mental health and academic services were not really available. I felt there was a strong need for such services and that the community could really benefit from services being offered. In particular, I believed the community would most benefit from culturally-appropriate services, not ones developed for other groups. I became more aware of the disparity when I left the community and went off to college at the University of Florida.

Q: Does your dissertation also address ethnic minority clients? What is it about?

A:  I actually recently defended my dissertation on how parental acculturation in Hispanic populations affects parenting and child social and emotional functioning for preschool children. Not a lot of work has been done thus far regarding acculturation and young kids. We found that for young children, increased parental acculturation levels are associated with increased externalizing problems, especially for girls. These findings are opposite of that which has previously been found for adolescents, so it may just be different for little kids.

Q: What practicum experiences have you had during your time at GSAPP?

A: I spent two years working with Nancy Boyd-Franklin through the Somerset Project, mostly serving ethnic minority middle school children. The kids involved in the program are typically “getting in trouble,” or they are at-risk for dropping out due to criminal involvement or pregnancy. I also worked with the Foster Care Counseling Project, as well as the Highland Park Teen Center, where I did a lot of work with Spanish speaking families.  They had at the time lacked any kind of counselors to provide such a service. In addition, I worked in the Research Lab for Resilience and Early Childhood Development with Dr. Geraldine Oades-Sese, where we studied risk and protective factors for Hispanic preschooler’s social-emotional, language, and cognitive development. I also helped Dr. Oades-Sese with her bilingual education program evaluation project in Perth Amboy. I worked a few years in Newark at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). While there, I functioned as a therapist at the outpatient unit for children and adolescents. I started a Spanish speaking parent group at UMDNJ that focused on psychoeducation, basic parenting skills, child development, effective discipline strategies and building a positive relationship with their children. Also, while at UMDNJ I participated in research through Harvard’s multicultural department examining whether a short-term intervention would help increase patient engagement in mental health services with predominantly Hispanic and African American clients. Additionally, I worked with Dr. Brenna Bry on her mentoring study for urban high school students through the Center of Alcohol Studies research grant. Currently, I’m working at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in the Regional Diagnostic & Treatment Center for child sexual abuse victims.

Q: Now that you have finished your dissertation and are preparing for your internship at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, do you have any advice for incoming or first-year students on having a successful term at GSAPP?

A: I think you should try to do as much as you can—there are so many awesome experiences, and it really prepares you for future clinical work. Try to get a good mix of clinical and research experience, and teaching or supervising experience, which will help you to become an overall good psychologist. I know people struggle whether to do more classes or take another practicum—I’d say go with the practicum, it’s where I’ve learned the most.