The professional accomplishments of Melba J. T. Vasquez are innumerable. Clinical practice, leadership, advocacy, education, and research are among the areas in which she has excelled. Vasquez’s work has positioned her not only as a pioneer within the field of psychology but also as a true example of determination and perseverance. Having grown up and later come of age around a climate of intense racial and political unrest, Vasquez encountered challenges that later became empowering experiences that influenced and continue to influence her work in many ways.
Vasquez is the first of seven children born to her parents and grew up in San Marcos, a small town in central Texas. In her writings, she has described enjoying considerable attention from her parents and extended family members, feeling safe in her community even though it was socially segregated, and not realizing her family was poor until she reached the age of 6. As she was growing up, Vasquez’s parents were very active in their community, participating in political rallies, voter registration projects, and fundraisers for Latina/o students. She noted her mother emphasized the significance of education, justice, and behaving as if they were deserving even if others did not seem to agree with such message.
Vasquez recalls feeling unsafe for the first time when she began elementary school and realized there was not a single teacher or administrator of color. Though she was very young and unable to put words to her experience, Vasquez notes she felt sadness and the loss of positive regard at a personal and group level due to seeing that children of a similar background were treated negatively. She soon learned that being a good student was the best way to get positive regard and a feeling of safety back.
Throughout her school years, Vasquez encountered difficult experiences such as hearing from her second-grade boyfriend that she could not be his girlfriend due to her ethnicity, finding out that the boys in the homecoming court were not willing to escort her for the same reason, and discovering that fellow high school cheerleaders excluded her from social gatherings.
The meaning of sisterhood began to emerge during Vasquez’s elementary school years. The importance of allies became easier to elucidate after an African American young girl defiantly interceded for Vasquez and her sister when they were being bullied by a White boy. In high school, Vasquez was elected to leadership positions by students of various ethnic backgrounds who had formed networks to gain representation. She excelled despite the painful challenges she encountered.
Vasquez received a bachelor’s degree in English and political science with a teaching certification from Southwest Texas State University. While in college, she encountered other salient life experiences. For example, she realized that individuals of White ethnic background can also be allies and found a mentor in Colleen Conoley, a woman who encouraged her to pursue a doctorate in counseling psychology.
In college, Vasquez represented one of her student organizations in a beauty pageant. She was chosen as a semifinalist and later evoked the astonishment of friends and advisors when she declined to participate in another beauty contest. She could not yet articulate her disapproval of patriarchy’s objectification of women, but this experience awakened the feminist in her.
Vasquez notes that Conoley suggested a doctoral degree in counseling psychology would provide more extensive options for her. At that point in time, Vasquez had been teaching for about a year and was engaged in part-time graduate work toward a master’s degree in school counseling. Though not fully grasping what those options would entail, Vasquez was intrigued by the study of human behavior and was interested in achievement, as she suspected racism, sexism, and lack of opportunity were intricately related. Motivated by the desire to dissipate some of her confusion via the acquisition and later the creation of knowledge, Vasquez embarked on a path toward doctoral education at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. She completed her doctoral degree in counseling psychology in 1978. She encountered discouraging situations with some professors, and at times questioned whether she belonged but was determined to prove that she did, in fact, belong. Vasquez received great support and mentorship from other professors, especially those who were part of her committee. In addition, being one of the first recipients of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) minority fellowship became an additional incentive to continue her studies.
Vasquez recognizes that affirmative action made it possible for her to be a psychologist and views this initiative as a central strategy to promote social justice. She also poses that affirmative action may have been a contributing factor to her subsequent job attainments at Colorado State University’s and UT at Austin’s counseling centers, where she served as director of training. Vasquez has been successfully dedicated to full-time independent practice for over 15 years and provides consultation and training for organizations as well as forensic consultation in addition to individual and group therapy. She has published extensively on a wide variety of topics, including psychology of women, feminism, professional ethics, ethnic minority psychology, training and supervision, and multicultural competence.
Vasquez’s dynamism and leadership are present across various divisions of the APA. She is a fellow of divisions 1, 17, 35, 42, 45, and 49 and is a member of divisions 9, 31, 44, and 56. She has presided over APA’s divisions 17 and 35 and the Texas Psychological Association, she is the treasurer of division 56, and she is the first Latina/o to be a member of APA’s Board of Directors in the 117-year history of APA. She has chaired APA’s Board of Professional Affairs, the Board for Professional Advancement, the Ad Hoc Council Committee on the Revision of Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, the Ad Hoc Committee on Legal and Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Interpersonal Violence, the Task Force on Communication with Minority Constituents, and the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs. More recently she has been part of APA’s Council of Representatives Task Force on the World Conference Against Racism’s Report and of APA President Ron Levant’s Task Force on Enhancing Diversity.
Vasquez’s influence has also been present in conference planning endeavors. She was part of the steering committee for the Competencies Conference 2002: Future Directions in Education and Credentialing in Professional Psychology, which was hosted by the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers. In 1999, she joined forces with other influential and visionary psychologists to establish and organize the annual National Multicultural Conference and Summit, which highlights research and practice that centers on multicultural psychology.
Additional affiliations include Vasquez’s involvement in the foundation of the National Latina/o Psychological Association and in the Texas Psychological Association, an organization which was recently under her direction. She was recently associated with the Southwest Texas Foundation Development Board and with the Austin Women’s Psychotherapy Project, of which she is a cofounder.
Through her parents’ activism, Vasquez learned that the pain and anger resulting from disenfranchisement were to be directed by way of proactive involvement. This lesson seems to be palpable in her endeavors and her commitment to the advancement of psychology. Her efforts have been celebrated by multiple awards, recently including receiving APA’s Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Independent or Institutional Practice in the Private Sector, being named Woman of the Year by Division 17’s Section for the Advancement of Women, being awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Phillips Graduate Institute, and receiving APA’s James M. Jones Lifetime Achievement Award.
Vasquez is a pioneer, an excellent role model who, regardless of her current status as a prominent psychologist, continues to be loyal to her principles and vision of what psychology as a profession should provide for Latinos/as, women, and other marginalized groups in society. Vasquez also leads by example as she promotes the importance of coalition building and the necessity to build bridges and resolve conflict between communities. Vasquez’s indefatigable labor continues via multifarious venues. She is a mujer of character and her work as a therapist, researcher, lecturer, advocate, and leader is sui generis.
- Pope, K., & Vasquez, M. J. T. (2007) Ethics in psychotherapy & counseling: A practical guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Vasquez, M. J. T. (2001). Leveling the playing field: Toward the emancipation of women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25, 89-97.
- Vasquez, M. J. T. (2001). Reflections on unearned advantages, unearned disadvantages, and empowering experiences. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed., pp. 64-77). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Vasquez, M. J. T. (2005). Independent practice settings and the multicultural guidelines. In M. G. Constantine & D. W. Sue (Eds.), Strategies for building multicultural competence in mental health and educational settings (pp. 91-108). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Vasquez, M. J. T., & Jones, J. M. (2006). Increasing the number of psychologists of color: Public policy issues for affirmative diversity. American Psychologist, 61, 132-143.