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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Perseverance and Perspective: In Wake of Adversity, Vasquez Finds Meaning in Fellowship

Dr. Marissa Vasquez


Tears were flowing as Dr. Marissa Vasquez read the acceptance letter.

The assistant professor in the Department of Administration, Rehabilitation and Postsecondary Education (ARPE) learned last month that she was named to the Faculty Fellows of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE). It’s a great honor and opportunity bestowed by an organization that once helped instill Vasquez’s belief that she could become a professor.

But that wasn’t the reason for her tears.

“The fellowship is amazing,” said Vasquez, who will be part of a cohort of 15 other Latino and Latina scholars from universities around the country, allowing her to collaborate and compare notes with peers on research, grant funding and pedagogy. “But I'm more proud of the fact that I was able to simply submit the application. I was so scared that I'd never be able to just sit here and have a conversation.”

In the wake of a devastating accident that left her doubting her future in academia, Vasquez doesn’t take the seemingly small things for granted anymore. Things like talking. Remembering. Teaching. 
I just wrote that I want to have a sense of purpose again, because, honestly, I don’t know what that’s going to look like — if I can even still be a part of this profession.
Dr. Marissa Vasquez

Injury and uncertainty 

Sitting in her office on a crisp December afternoon, Vasquez is sharp in conversation. You’d never know she spent the semester on partial medical leave, the result of a serious concussion suffered over the summer.

There was a rumor going around, Vasquez says, that she’d injured herself while hiking in Mexico. The truth is far more ordinary. She wasn’t abroad at all; she simply tripped, fell backwards and hit her head.

Initially, Vasquez thought the injury was nothing major, even as a splitting headache lingered into the next day. The day after that, however, she found herself unable to get out of bed.

The recovery, which doctors estimate could take as long as a year, has been taxing. She initially struggled with her speech, unable to quickly find the words to convey her ideas. She still can’t stare at a computer screen for long stretches, exert herself physically or effortlessly remember students’ names. But even worse was the uncertainty the injury sowed.

“I was really scared,” Vasquez recalls. “I was crying and just thinking, ‘Who am I if I can't do what I love. What am I going to do if I don't ever get better?’”

Labor of love 

Vasquez’s tears underscore her love for a profession that allows her to make higher education a more welcoming and inclusive space. In her research and as Associate Director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL) at SDSU, she focuses on understanding the factors needed for success for underrepresented students — particularly Latinos coming through community colleges.

Vasquez, a South Bay native who attended Southwestern College before transferring to Berkeley, understands the struggle. In recent years, she founded and helped administer scholarships to support underrepresented students.

“I think academia is a predominantly white space,” said Vasquez. “And I think being on the younger side of faculty and being a woman of color, I've constantly had that imposter syndrome, not knowing if I belong here or if I'm doing things right.”

Vasquez never imagined occupying this space. As recently as five years ago, she thought she was destined to become an administrator or a community college counselor — never a professor. Two things changed that.

The first was enrolling in SDSU’s Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. Under the encouraging mentorship of her dissertation advisor Dr. Luke Wood — now Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion — the sense that she didn’t belong in academia started to melt away.

“I met Luke and he said, ‘I'm going to convince you that being a professor is the best job in the world,’” Vasquez said.

Recalls Wood: “At our first meeting, I recognized that Marissa had a superior intellect, a scholarly-poetic writing style and passion for student success. Based on her prior experience in the field, I knew she had much to offer. And, she has contributed much. I'm very honored to say that Frank Harris and I were part of supporting her journey into the academy.”

The second factor that changed Vasquez’s professional path was becoming a graduate fellow with AAHHE. Suddenly, she had a support network of other Latino and Latina scholars she could lean on and draw inspiration from.

“We’ve been able to watch each other go through the process of graduating, applying for jobs, getting jobs and now collaborating with each other on research projects,” Vasquez said. “I have a lot of people who are my mentors now. I really appreciate this network because it creates a space that allows us to embrace our cultural identity as scholars, but also weave that into our research, teaching and service.”

What’s important 

It was September — mere weeks after her accident — and Vasquez wondered how she’d complete her AAHHE fellowship application. How could she sum up her career in a personal statement when her memory was impaired, when she couldn’t even look at a computer screen?

More tears fell as she jotted thoughts in a notepad whenever she could muster a few minutes of energy. Some of her students kindly assisted in typing up the statement.

“I remember saying to my students, Yolanda CataƱo and Angel Gonzalez, ‘I don’t even know if this is good,’” Vasquez says, smiling. “They assured me, ‘It’s good!’”

She remembers one section in particular. The application asked what she hoped to get out of the fellowship. “I just wrote that I want to have a sense of purpose again,” she said, “because, honestly, I don’t know what that’s going to look like — if I can even still be a part of this profession.”

Thanks to progress in her recovery and the support of ARPE colleagues like Dr. Caren Sax, Dr. Charles Degeneffe and Dr. Marilee Bresciani Ludvik, Vasquez no longer harbors those fears. It always helps, she notes, to have experts in rehabilitation counseling and mindfulness in your corner. 

Her plan is to be back in the classroom full-time starting in the spring semester. While she’s eager to resume her life in the academy as normal, she’s also wary of pushing herself too far, too fast.

“There's so much more to life than grading or submitting conference proposals or manuscripts,” she said. “I'm just so thankful that I've had colleagues like Chuck, Marilee and Frank who have reminded me that it's OK to slow down.”