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Success Doesn't Hinge on Acceptance

Posted on January 20, 2009

Hortensia Amaro (bio) offers hope for students who face setbacks.


I originally studied psychology. I applied to graduate school at UCLA, had been an undergraduate at UCLA, and I was originally interested in clinical psychology. And of course this was back in 1975, and there had been only one Latino student in my graduate program. At the time that I applied there had been no Latino professors, so I think there was one Latino professor in physiological psychology, but not in clinical. And I was very interested in clinical work with families, but even though I had a 3.85 average, I had a publication in a scientific journal, I had had an honors thesis, I had done significant community work, I was rejected.

And I was told that my interests didn't align with those of the faculty, which was I think a common thing that can happen to students who don't fit into, or the faculty don't perceive them to have interests that are aligned with theirs.

I didn't get discouraged. I went on to do a year of graduate work in early childhood development in the doctoral program in the department of education, and then there was a Latino professor who came to UCLA in developmental psychology. And I started to do research with him on language development in bilingual kids, and I actually became very interested in working with these families.

Our focus really was language development, but I became very interested in what was happening to the families in their process of adaptation to the U.S. and felt like we were really missing really important things that were going on.

And this one particular family that really stands out in my mind, they were very poor. The father was working, the mother was staying at home taking care of two young kids. And they had no ca,r so the father took the bus to where he was employed. Distances in L.A. are great, and so not having a car is a real disadvantage.

He lost his job, and I just saw how that family became disintegrated: how the father started to abuse alcohol, how the children started to have behavior problems, how the parenting of the mother really changed over time. And I became very interested in that. What was happening in this family that really just disrupted them from being on a very good trajectory to really a problematic trajectory?

So I became very interested in the context, especially the economic context and the cultural adaptation over time beyond language and how it was affecting risk for alcohol use and behavior problems in the kids. But I worked on that project.

I applied to the developmental psychology program at UCLA and was accepted, and I ended up doing my degree in developmental psych.

I also realize that it's almost like if you're not able to be accepted in the program you want to be accepted in, for whatever reason, I think there's always ways to think about how to focus whatever training you're getting to be relevant to your areas of interest. Because I ended up actually doing work — I'm not doing direct clinical work myself, but I develop clinical programs. I work and hire clinicians, and I develop interventions at a larger level, at a programmatic level. And so in a way I ended up doing work that was very aligned with what I wanted to do to begin with, but through a different route.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2008 National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse Conference in Bethesda, MD.

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