“Working with HEALTH-RCMI really aligned with what my values are in terms of increasing an equitable mental health service and my training as a counseling psychologist,” Dr. Herrera said. “For me, I’ve always really focused on research that gives voice to historically oppressed communities. As a Mexican woman, focusing on the Latinx community, this was a way to give back, to honor my family and community.”
In her undergraduate work at University of California, Irvine, Dr. Herrera had been inspired and guided by the same mentor who nurtured Dr. Ezemenari Obasi’s vision and career in health equity, Dr. Jeanett Castellanos.
“Once I looked at all that Dr. Obasi has done, I felt like it was a great fit in terms of values,” Herrera said. “It’s a way to learn more--thinking about the whole person, the holistic view of attending to peoples’ needs, while also recognizing certain systems of oppression and white supremacy that affect our health as people of color. I am hoping to continue to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Obasi. I’m very happy that Dr. Obasi did consider me to be a good fit.”
Castellanos encouraged Herrera in a way that made her feel seen and heard as a powerful Latina who could navigate higher education and nurture other first-generation students.
“I always heard about Dr. Obasi’s work, and I thought his path was very inspirational as someone who was ‘first gen.’ Dr. Castellanos told me about so many other people who she also mentored, and she encouraged my love for research,” Herrera said.
Navigating the path through higher education was a defining journey for Herrera. Facing microaggressions during high school, Herrera was hesitant and intimidated to go through the traditional university route because of the blow to her self-confidence. In retrospect, Herrera credits her time at community college before her work at University of California, Irvine as one of the most encouraging, rewarding educational experiences.
“Through community college, I found community, and I found my love for education again. I was able to go to a 4-year institution after that and be ready,” Herrera said. “I was happy that I found my self-efficacy. But also, I was happy to find my mentor, Dr. Castellanos who was also a Latina who was also is from California and who is also first generation. She encouraged me.”
Herrera recently completed her doctoral degree in counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison under the guidance of her other trusted mentor, Dr. Alberta Gloria. Herrera also completed her master’s degree at University of Wisconsin, Madison.
As a requirement of her Ph.D. program, Herrera completed an internship year where she accumulated 2,000 hours focusing on therapy, improving counseling skills and working on her dissertation.
“You really don’t know how to describe therapy until you are doing therapy. It was both exciting and heartbreaking. In Wisconsin, there was small group of immigrants I met,” Herrera said. “I was the only therapist of color and bilingual.”
Herrera emphasizes that while research is her passion, she also has a true heart for therapy.
“So, research has always been my love. I also love doing therapy. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences to be a part of someone’s journey,” Herrera said. “But I love teaching and I love mentoring students—that's where I see myself after this opportunity. I’ve been wanting to do more child therapy.”
One of the research initiatives that Herrera would like to delve more deeply into is helping survivors of trauma.
“A lot of research that interests me is about helping survivors of trauma. I am interested in the intersection of interpersonal trauma and navigating higher education as a person of color,” Herrera said. “I want to explore other aspects of mental health--every part of you is affected by physical coping and the health consequences of long-term trauma and interactive trauma.”
In terms of empowering other Latinas, Herrera is using her experiences and voice to encourage others to feel and understand their worth. Struggling to overcome the imposter syndrome is a real battle, Herrera asserts.
“Apply for that fellowship or job, if you don’t believe you can get it, find your people, feel worthy. ‘You belong’—I'm glad I was told this so many times.” Herrera said, “If you think there is something that you’re so excited about, but you think—’oh no way, I shouldn’t apply,’ go ahead and apply!”
A research endeavor that is near and dear to Herrera’s heart involves the iconic Selena, a hero for many Latinas.
“One of the things I love about Texas is that Selena is from Texas. I was thinking of developing different elements of Selena to help Latinas who are trying to navigate education, affirming this educational experience and using elements of Selena to help us cope, be more intentional,” Herrera said. “I’m thinking of using those elements of Selena in a 10-week group therapy, recommend that for counseling center. That’s one thing I’m finishing up, and I’m really excited about.”
In addition to mentors, Dr. Gloria and Dr. Castellanos, Herrera underscored that her inspirational heroes were her mom and grandmother. Her mother urged her father to immigrate from Mexico from the state of Guanajuato when she was young, so the family could have more opportunities.
“I’m very happy that my mom pushed us to immigrate,” Herrera said. “That’s another reason why my mom is my everything, because she pushed us to go to the U.S. If I would have stayed in Mexico, I definitely would not have gone to school. I’m glad that my dad listened, and I’m glad my mom advocated for that. I have a special place in my heart for that. When I got my Ph.D., my mom asked me—how do you want to celebrate? I said, I want to celebrate in Mexico!”
Herrera is currently working on her dissertation, and she continues to collaborate and gain invaluable feedback on Latinx research initiatives from Dr. Gloria.
“My dissertation focuses on Latinas, but it’s now expanded to all women of color,” Herrera said. “The other paper focuses on Dr. Gloria’s theory of ‘Nepantla’ of being ‘in-between’ in a way of empowering Chicanas who are interested in research and how to regain our voice as researchers and scholars. This is outside the voice of whiteness. It’s about learning how to gain a voice, how to connect to your community and ancestors as a way of finding your voice.”
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Interview Opportunities: Dr. Nancy Herrera