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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

New MFT Director Hopes Her Students Will Imagine New Possibilities for Themselves

Dr. Sesen Negash, director of MFT

Over the summer, associate professor Sesen Negash became the first person of color to serve as director of the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program at San Diego State University. That would be a significant milestone in any program, but particularly in MFT — not only one of SDSU’s most diverse graduate programs, but one that trains clinicians to work with families in diverse communities.

Sesen, an Eritrean American who joined the SDSU faculty in 2017, has conducted research on the impact of sexual behaviors on monogamous relationships, as well as familial relationships of adult males transitioning out of prison. Here, she discusses the work of MFT, the importance of strong faculty role models for students of color and communities she’d like to better serve.

What makes MFT so special at SDSU? 
"Our focus is on doing the work from a social justice perspective, and we're really mindful that this field is here to serve a very vulnerable population. And often those populations are vulnerable not just for the situations they are in, but because of the cultures they are in and how those cultures are received. We're really focused on helping those who aren't just marginalized but are within the margins of the margins. We train students and expose them to situations where they are serving communities that often get overlooked and are dealing with a lot of societal and institutional issues — racism and sexism, you name it."

I was going into a lot of these experiences feeling like I had to make up for a sense of presumed incompetence. That's something that I still hold — that doesn't just leave you.                 —Dr. Sesen Negash

So do you see significance in being the first person of color to direct this program? 
"It's really exciting because our students are also really diverse; about 78% of our students are students of color, which we're really proud of. For many years, despite the diversity within the program, the program has been led by white faculty. Though the focus of the program has always been to focus on diversity, the leadership has reflected the majority. All of us are really excited to (have me) embody what we're trying to do. I think students, by looking at me, are able to think, ‘That's a possibility for me.’ I think that's special."

Did you have similar role models early in your academic career? 
"I did not. I was part of programs where the vast majority of the faculty were white and often, when it came to research, it was white males. So I didn't have that modeled in my mentors and that felt like a deficit, for sure. I always felt supported, but I always knew there was something missing — a sense of disconnect on some level because I was going into a lot of these experiences feeling like I had to make up for a sense of presumed incompetence. That's something that I still hold — that doesn't just leave you. But I'm hoping that now, some of our students won't have to experience that to the same extent."

What do you hope to accomplish as director?
"I hope to try to encourage students who may not otherwise think that counseling, mental health or therapy is something they want to get into. I want to promote this field within communities of color. The African American community in particular is underserved in mental health, partly because of all the stigma associated with it, but also because we just don't have enough clinicians who are African American or black. I want to see that change."