Living Community Psychology – Bernadette Sanchez


Gloria Levin

For this installment, we profile a community psychologist who was a first-generation, ethnic minority college student, has received excellent mentoring throughout her professional career and, in turn, has been a passionate advocate for diverse students. Her own research program addresses positive youth development and youth mentoring.

What does a community psychologist do?

Living Community Psychology highlights a community psychologist through an in-depth interview intended to highlight the personal and professional lives of those working in our field.  The intent is to personalize Community Psychology as it is lived by its diverse practitioners. These past columns contain a wealth of life advice gleaned from over 60 profiled community psychologists, from graduate students to retirees, representing an invaluable resource for community psychologists.

*All columns are available online, at

Bernadette Sánchez’s parents were childhood sweethearts in a poor, rural village in the Dominican Republic. Her father, the oldest of nine siblings, came to New York City at age 14, living with an uncle. He worked at odd jobs and sent money home to support the rest of his family. Her mother followed him to the U.S. a few years later, and they married at the ages of 19 and 16. Bernadette was born soon after, followed by three siblings – Maribel (2 years younger); Silvio (4 years); and Jennifer (11 years).  Over time, almost all their relatives came to the U.S.  Her maternal grandmother lived with the family, helping with childcare. Her mother worked factory jobs originally but, as her father became established as an entrepreneur, he nixed her working outside the home – an exercise of traditional machismo.

Like many immigrant families, Spanish was spoken in the home, although the children conversed with each other in English, once they started school. (Bernadette entered preschool not speaking English, and no bilingual education was offered. Unable to communicate, she was so unhappy the first day that her mother was called to retrieve her.) Her father left school in the eighth grade; her mother also had a low educational level in the DR. Both of them earned GED’s in the U.S. — four years ago for her father.

Starting in low-level service jobs, her father saved enough money to buy a bodega (corner grocery store) in the Bronx. Being a smart businessman and a hard worker, at the height of his business career, he owned 11 bodegas at one time.  In the tradition of “moving up,” Bernadette’s family literally relocated, each time moving farther north, first within New York City (Washington Heights, the Bronx) and then to the suburbs, ending in middle to upper-middle income towns within Westchester County.

These moves were intended to provide a better education for the children. “My parents stressed how hard they had struggled and made clear that our futures depended on working hard and doing well in school. We were expected to become a physician, engineer or lawyer. Period.” Her math-proficient father drilled her at age 4 in math exercises he had created. Her parents were ambitious for all their children, 3 girls and one boy, although they were overly protective of the girls, especially the two oldest. The girls were shielded from the rough neighborhoods in which the family’s bodegas were located, nor could they go on sleepovers or hang out at the mall with their friends, because Bernadette’s mom was certain that her daughters would get into trouble away from home. This was a cause of considerable friction within the family, especially because their brother was allowed total freedom. (Dominican values prioritized baseball proficiency for males.) For example, he did not have to study hard or keep his room clean. (Instead, his older sisters were responsible for cleaning his room.) However, from this, she and Maribel gained an unshakable work ethic that has served them well.

Bernadette’s middle and high school classes included few Latino students; most Latinos were assigned to remedial classes. Bernadette later realized that she and Maribel, both excellent students, should have been tracked into honors classes. Her parents did not know that they could have advocated for this. Once an eighth grade counselor offered her the option of an advanced math class (which would separate her from her friends), but she did so in the presence of Bernadette’s friend (just an average student), putting her in an awkward position. (Not until her senior year was Bernadette placed in an honors class.) Although most of her friends were White and the Sánchez children were all born in the U.S., her parents insisted they were Dominican. Although she was caught between two worlds and had to continually negotiate for small freedoms, these experiences made her adaptable to different environments. She values having multiple cultural perspectives – unlike her parents’ insistence on “the one right way.”

When considering colleges, her parents wanted her to commute from home to a university, but Bernadette’s heart was set on freedom away from home. She enlisted assistance from a high school counselor who requested a meeting with her mother and recommended Fairfield University. Her mother was comforted because this Jesuit school had priests on campus, and Bernadette would be only 45 minutes away. Bernadette received partial financial support from Fairfield, and a visit to the country club-like campus sealed the deal. With only 3,000 students, Fairfield “felt like a bigger version of my high school and was J. Crew preppy.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Sánchez was so worried that she called constantly, driving her roommate nuts whenever Bernadette was not in her dorm room. (Bernadette’s experience smoothed the way a year later, for Maribel, an All American track star, to attend Dartmouth – despite being a distance of 4.5 hours from home.)

Although Bernadette had artistic skills, she did not consider art to be a stable career. She had no declared major for a long while but eventually majored in psychology. Before entering her senior year, she participated in a summer research program in Minnesota. In presenting her summer work to her psychology class back at Fairfield, her professor predicted that she would be a professor some day. “Who? Me?,” she thought.

Although Fairfield did not offer classes in community psychology, she thrived in the Jesuit framework of social justice and was greatly influenced by an advisor, community psychologist Judy Primavera, who invited her to volunteer in her Head Start Family project. Bernadette found community psychology’s intervention work to be a good fit for her. With Judy’s help, she applied to a diverse range of graduate programs and, despite her mother’s concern about the distance, she chose the University of Illinois, Chicago. UIC’s community psychology program offered her a stipend and tuition waiver, and after admission, she won a fellowship and a research assistantship. She carried only a $2,000 loan for all her graduate work. Originally, her mother was unimpressed with psychology until she learned that her daughter would be addressed as “Doctor,” close enough to the medical degree the Sánchez parents wanted for their children.

In the second cohort of community psychology students at UIC, half of her classmates dropped out.  They had been attracted to the promise of a social action program, but UIC’s program was more theoretically oriented. However, Bernadette appreciated UIC’s then-strong community psychology faculty, especially the nurturing mentorship of Olga (now Karina) Reyes, herself a first-generation Latina college graduate. “A mentor can make or break a graduate student, but Karina took me under her wing.” Upon arrival at UIC, Bernadette was intimidated and insecure, convinced she was “the dumb one” and questioned if she had been admitted only on the basis of being a hard-working ethnic minority.  Olga not only reassured her that she was doing fine and could make a contribution but was hands-on, patiently working on Bernadette’s (then weak) writing skills while maintaining her high standards. “Writing papers together at the computer, although time consuming for Olga, was a valuable experience for me.”

She also attained valuable skills from another UIC minority woman mentor, Robin Miller, on whose research team she volunteered for several years. Robin gave her useful advice on nagging self doubts — “the imposter syndrome.” Bernadette had gone straight through school, with no breaks, and was teaching on the college level while still in her 20’s. “I felt very young, especially when I taught students of my age or older.” Robin shared her own earlier feelings of inadequacy and recommended she learn to “act as if.” Bernadette began to realize that she had skills needed by her students, even 60-year old agency Executive Directors, and her excellent student ratings gave her more confidence. “But it was not until I turned 30 that I felt like I had permission to be faculty.”

Bernadette had originally aimed for a career in educational policy evaluation research, having rejected the prospect of an academic career when she observed the rigors of academic life impacting her professors’ lives. However, she grew to love teaching when she had a part-time position teaching older students at a college in Chicago, followed by a one-year, fulltime visiting position at DePaul University. The year at DePaul was difficult because, not only was she writing her dissertation, but she also was teaching five new courses, resulting in seven-day workweeks.

She applied for several academic jobs, including a tenure-track position at DePaul. Although she was wait listed for that position, she attended the six job talks of the final candidates for the DePaul position, picking up ideas on how to do a job talk. However, when none of the candidacies resulted in a hire, she was invited to give her own job talk. “My own presentation benefitted from having attended the six earlier talks” and she was offered and accepted the tenure- track position at DePaul. She now proclaims her love for teaching – “I was meant to be in academia.”

While in her PhD program, Bernadette met Neil Vincent, then a Social Work doctoral student at UIC, in a research methods course. Several years later, they reconnected through a mutual friend, began dating immediately and married soon after.

On the way to tenure and promotion (received 2007), Bernadette had obtained considerable feedback over the years, allowing her to strengthen her record. But she was dejected upon receiving three rejections from publishers. “Up to then, I had not sought help, but the rejections made me question if I belonged in academia. I reached out to a senior colleague, Susan McMahon, who reassured me that rejections are part of the game, even for the most productive scholars.” A major lesson she learned is that “every manuscript has a home,” if not always in the top tier publications. But she also was emboldened to proactively seek assistance from senior colleagues, such as Chris Keys, Len Jason and Shel Cotler, who reviewed her publication record and Gary Harper who taught her how to apply for research grants.

She also sought out David DuBois at UIC, a leader in youth mentoring programs and research, who willingly offered ideas. “Working on one of his grants (for a Big Sister program) gave me invaluable experience in developing an intervention and in implementing best practices.”

She took a two-quarter sabbatical (her fourth year at DePaul) to write up her research and, helped by all these supports, Bernadette felt ready in her sixth year to submit for promotion and tenure. “Once I submitted my portfolio, it was out of my hands. But my reviews were unanimously in favor at each level. Obtaining tenure felt great. I could now work at my own pace and can now actually enjoy writing. Most of all, I learned to go to others for assistance. I do that all the time now, not only when those old feelings of inadequacy surface again but also as a natural way to grow from collaborations, advice and feedback.”

Bernadette’s activity with SCRA (first, encouraged by her DePaul colleague, Gary Harper) started as a regional coordinator; then as an elected national coordinator when she also served on SCRA’s Executive Committee. But her active involvement effectively ended in 2010, when she was named to direct DePaul’s community psychology PhD program. That same year, she had her first child, Eva (now age 4), followed by Dylan (2) so she now has little time for outside activities.

Ethnic minority professors shoulder a large, sometimes overwhelming, responsibility — such as being appointed to many committees so as to “represent diverse viewpoints.” These faculty also tend to attract a disproportionate number of advisees, especially undergraduates, who are first-generation students in higher education. “Students regularly sit in my office crying their eyes out about their families not understanding them, being caught between two worlds.” She also attracts White women students seeking a female mentor but, curiously, few White males. A White woman student organized Bernadette’s (successful) nomination for SCRA’s 2014 Ethnic Minority Mentorship Award and included several heartfelt personal narratives from her mentees. The award recognized her passion for mentoring and her long involvement with the McNair Scholars Program at DePaul, which prepares first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students to obtain doctorate degrees and pursue research careers. She provides her students hands-on experience on her research teams, studying mentoring of ethnic minority youth.

The year of 2014 was a bonanza year for Bernadette in receiving SCRA awards, also having obtained Fellow status. This came about as a result of a chance meeting with Gloria Levin at the Women’s Night Out dinner at the Miami Biennial conference. Gloria asked to review Bernadette’s credentials and then encouraged her to be nominated for the honor. “Unlike the mentoring award, for which I knew I was well qualified, I was doubtful. It didn’t feel natural for me, but Gloria taught me that I don’t give myself enough credit and that I needed to sell myself. It helped to know that other women (whom I admire) had also told her at first they didn’t feel qualified. Gloria kicked me in the butt until I submitted the materials.” Her department chair, Susan McMahon, and colleague, Chris Keys, also reviewed her final materials and reassured her she was qualified for the award.

When Bernadette was still in college, her parents divorced after 30 years of marriage. While this was a painful period for all involved, it nonetheless marked a major transition in the dynamics of her relationships to her parents, each only having her to depend upon for emotional support. Although an awkward situation, she finally became an adult in their eyes. Her father, now located in Florida, has remarried, and Bernadette has 3 half siblings from that union. Always the entrepreneur and hard worker, he has established a house cleaning service, although at age 64, his ability to perform manual labor is diminishing. Bernadette’s mother still lives in New York where she drives a school bus and is an avid tennis player. The siblings are geographically dispersed. Maribel was an athletic coach at Dartmouth but is now a stay at home mom with 3 children in New Hampshire. Silvio lives in Connecticut where he works for a bank, having earned a bachelor’s in business administration. Jennifer is now studying for a PhD in public health, in San Diego.

As to her own family, Neil, a tenured professor in DePaul’s Department of Social Work, engages in community action with family survivors of violence. She and Neil handle child care for their two children by constant “tag teaming.” The children are in preschool 3 days a week; taking advantage of the flexibility of academic schedules, they rotate their schedules on the other weekdays. Bernadette’s work schedule has been compressed into 4 days, with one day off for child care. However, this necessitates her working on weekends and nights. While Neil’s work keeps him mostly in Chicago, Bernadette is increasingly in demand to deliver keynote speeches, do trainings or participate on committees. This becomes a tricky balancing act, especially when invited overseas. On occasion, these trips have been turned into family vacations.

A leader in implementing mentoring programs and in studying mentoring relationships with youth, Bernadette’s own life path is both an exemplar and a reminder of the hopes and challenges of the immigrant experience.

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