MFT stipend winners credit their Brandman educations
Three graduate students from the Monterey campus and one from the Victorville campus are receiving $18,000 stipends from the MFT Consortium of California to help defray the cost of their M.A. in psychology degrees.
Sara Dickson worked with Assistant Professor Nakisha Castillo at the Victorville campus to meet the stipend requirements. Sandra Solorio, Roberto Hernandez and Ana Pajas are the winners from the Monterey campus.
While it’s not unusual for someone from Brandman to earn the stipend for marriage and family therapy (MFT) students, it is unusual for three to come from one campus. Students credit Albert Munoz-Flores, Psy.D., a senior lecturer at the campus, with providing the kind of guidance and support that made the stipends possible.
“Dr. Munoz really encouraged us to apply and to put the emphasis (on their applications) on mental health in the community and how it impacted us. And he made sure we submitted everything on time,” said Solorio, who had hesitated to apply for the stipend because it involved writing five short essays at the same time she was trying to finish up homework for two courses.
“He said, ‘Do it.’ And I did. And I got it, so I guess I’m going in the right direction. I’m doing something right,” said Solorio.
Hernandez echoed Solorio’s gratitude for the guidance Munoz gave them. The entire Brandman program, he said, has given him the foundation he was seeking to advance his career. “It’s not just the education. It’s also getting to know (faculty members) who have links to the community.”
"Hearing my professor's experiences and having them share what they have learned along the way, pushed me to continue and learn to become a professional," said Ana Pajas.
Munoz-Flores also knows what it’s like to return to school as an adult to seek an advanced degree. Before he came to Monterey and before he began teaching, he spent 31 years in law enforcement in the city of South Pasadena and then Beverly Hills.
And yes, he was literally a Beverly Hills cop and one of the many who appeared in the second of the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies.
The support he received from Beverly Hills Police Department to continue his education and the satisfaction he had gotten from helping people, often on the worst days of their lives, started him on the path to advanced degrees in psychology. After retiring from the police force, he worked with high-risk students and taught at the community college level in Santa Clarita.
Munoz-Flores moved to Monterey about four years ago, essentially retiring a second time until connecting with Brandman to teach students in the MFT program. “I’m a terrible golfer and a worse fisherman, so it’s a good retirement. I enjoy working with our students so much,” said Munoz-Flores.
Munoz said he thinks the students are successful because they’re just who the stipend program seeks: People connected to their communities with a genuine interest in working with underserved populations in a county or state setting.
Meeting community needs
In the five 150-word essays, the applicants had to describe how they would meet the needs of people underserved by the public mental health system, what their capacity was for working with people of diverse cultures, how their educations prepared them, how dedicated they were to a long-term career goal of promoting a public health practice and how they could serve their particular geographical area.
Stipend winners are chosen from eight different regions with the number of awards per region varying from eight to 24, based on population and need. The Bay Area, which includes Monterey County, is both large in geographic area and population. It includes the coastal counties from Santa Cruz to Humboldt and includes San Francisco. Students from eighteen universities were eligible for the stipends.
“One reason our students are so successful is we have a good reputation for turning out clinicians. And one of the reasons for that is we are blessed to have all these professionals in the field of mental health working for us,” said Munoz. “So, in addition to learning theory, our students learn the practical application of theory.”
His own experiences fit that description. When he first returned to school, he was drawn to hospice work. Then he began working with clients in an anger-management program, people convicted of domestic violence. That led him to a doctoral program where his internship put him in Casa Pacifica, a facility for children and adolescents with severe mental illness.
He continues to give back to his community in other ways. In December, he organized an event to support a holiday drive for a homeless shelter. This month, he begins serving on the Pacific Grove Traffic and Safety Commission.
“I think volunteerism is a big deal. I consider it an honor to do that,” he said.
Because the stipend is part of a workforce development effort funded through the State’s Mental Health Services Act, serving specific communities is a key component. The stipend-winning students were already interested in giving back to the communities where they grew up. Both Solorio and Hernandez said it was the lack of services in the rural areas around Monterey that inspired them to want to want to work there.
Solorio, whose undergraduate work at San Jose State was in speech-language pathology, said she understands bilingual kids who have to speak for their monolingual parents because she did it. “If you don’t have a good support system, that’s where substance abuse and other things happen that you use to cope, rather than doing the positive things.” As the oldest daughter of parents who only spoke Spanish, she took on major responsibilities for herself and siblings when navigating educational and social service systems.
For the students who receive the stipend, it’s an unexpected bonus as they near graduation (another qualification). “It’s a head start on paying off my student loan,” said Solorio. “I can focus more on providing service than paying off my debt. So, I’m relieved.”
"The stipend means so much to me. I am a single mother of two boys. It will take a lot of stress off my shoulders and give me more time to spend with my children and less worry," said Pajas.
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