Sonia Aguilar has just entered her third year as a graduate student in University of San Francisco’s counseling psychology program, which means her course work is behind her. Now she embarks on a traineeship in the behavioral health access team of Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services. Just a few days before she is due to report to work, Sonia is full of anticipation, commitment, and gratitude.
“It’s been a very enriching and challenging two years,” she says. “This program has really opened up my eyes to the need in our community—especially the lack of access to mental healthcare, which can also be the root of so many other health issues.”
Of her chosen career providing mental health services to underserved communities, she reflects, “I think I had this calling my whole life. I just wasn’t able to narrow it down and I lacked the resources to pursue it when I was younger.”
As an immigrant herself, Sonia says she understands the challenges and stressors common to many in her Latinx community. She came to Sonoma County with her mother and brother when she was six years old, and although her parents made education a central value in her upbringing, she was only able to complete her undergraduate education later in life. To do so she relied on her college’s staff counselors, and that left a positive and influential impression.
“My experience with my career counselors, and even mental heath counselors, just made me fall in love with what they did,” she explains. “I’ve always loved to help people, be there for them in any way, shape or form. They’re the ones that modeled this for me and they were my inspiration. That’s what made me come into this field, that personal experience that I had.”
Upon graduating, Sonia was ready to put that inspiration into practice. She gained acceptance to USF’s professional track, and then sought support through Healthcare Foundation’s Mental Health Talent Pipeline (MHTP) program, receiving a scholarship to help subsidize her graduate studies.
“I’m grateful for that,” she says, referring both to the financial assistance and the network of peers she joined through MHTP. “I’ve met amazing people in this program.”
Sonia’s studies have been further bolstered and inspired by her bilingual and bicultural upbringing. Indeed, she early on recognized the important role she could play as a liaison with her community.
“I’m very proud of my parents urging me to speak Spanish at home and to practice it. Every single job that I’ve had since my first job, as a filing clerk in a law office, I have used this amazing resource. My bosses would ask me to translate and to help support my Latinx community. I’ve been doing that since the age of 18. It’s very important for me to be that liaison or advocate for the Latinx community. It’s part of who I am.
“And I will be using that second language to reach that need for mental health assistance,” she continues, “to reach people that are looking for healing. One doctor told me something that really stuck with me: Minorities have the right to have professionals that look like them. I believe my community has a right to have a mental health professional that looks like them and knows their language and can be open to hear what they have to say. That is my position in my Latinx community. I am here for them.”