When Fernando Vazquez, MSW (Master of Social Work), LSW (Licensed Social Worker) was a high school history teacher in Newark, he earned a reputation as a person who students would feel comfortable seeing if they were dealing with a difficult or confusing situation.
“My favorite part of being a teacher was counseling kids,” Fernando said. “When I had a free period, students who weren’t even in any of my classes would pop in and ask to talk to me. They might want to discuss how to deal with a certain challenge or something on the news that they didn’t understand.”
Although Fernando has deep respect for the teaching profession, he discovered that he enjoyed deeper conversations with students in a way that the structure of the school day couldn’t necessarily accommodate. He enrolled in the Rutgers School of Social Work in Newark, an experience that ended up being far more eventful than he expected.
About a year and a half into graduate school, Fernando learned he was going to be a father. Juggling his studies with his newfound responsibilities as a parent was a delicate balancing act, but he was excited about his future. His internship at Nutley Family Service Bureau (NFSB) validated his decision to pursue social work as a career.
“Staela (Keegan, Clinical Director at NFSB) was very open and inviting with the interns and younger clinicians,” Fernando said. “Everyone at NFSB is encouraged to be themselves. Instead of being told what kind of therapy to practice, we’re given the freedom to get to know each client, establish a connection, and determine what they need. That level on autonomy and a great group of clinicians make NFSB a great place to be.”
Trilingual and Sensitive to the Immigrant Experience
Fernando speaks fluent English, Portuguese, and Spanish, as well as Galician, a language spoken in northwestern Spain that has many similarities to Portuguese. This allows him to literally speak the same language as a patient population that often faces unique challenges.
“I was raised in Newark, but my parents both grew up under the Franco dictatorship in Spain,” Fernando said. “Immigration is part of my story. I have undocumented immigrants in my family and taught undocumented kids as a teacher. I understand the plight of people in detention centers and the lasting effects these experiences can have. Clients know I’m capable of understanding their struggles, which helps us build a connection and motivates them to continue with therapy.”
In addition to his formal education and ability to speak multiple languages, Fernando often draws upon his experience as a high school teacher to counsel teens of different backgrounds who are trying to overcome adversity and achieve success in school and life. His experience in a school environment has provided Fernando with a unique perspective into academic, social, and family issues that enables him to relate to teens in a meaningful way.
Helping a Client Reach His “Growth Moment”
Fernando has been seeing “John” for about two years. John always had a nagging sense that he was not worthless, but worth less than others. He also grew up with a parent who had his own mental health issues. Although the parent was not abusive, John didn’t grow up in a supportive environment. This contributed to multiple mental health disorders, including ADHD and depression, as well as ongoing struggles with addiction.
“He went through a good part of his life thinking he’s a problem,” Fernando said. “He never had his own crew. He was always made to feel inferior and small. There was one specific incident as a teenager when he was berated in public for an honest mistake. When I told him how wrong I thought it was (using more blunt language), he was very appreciative and said I was the first therapist who really seemed to understand him.”
At the height of the pandemic, John was working in a place that required masks and physical distancing when a customer refused to comply with his employer’s policies. Despite John’s best efforts to diffuse the situation, the customer started cursing. John ordered the customer to leave and had to physically escort him from the premises.
“I literally exploded in celebration when he told me this story,” Fernando said. “He not only stood up to this rude person in a respectful way, but he stood up for his co-workers and other customers. John decided this person wasn’t going to walk all over him. He had his growth moment and I was so happy for him.”
Teens, especially immigrants, often face unique sets of challenges that make it difficult to excel and find happiness. These struggles are often complicated by language barriers. If you or someone you know is in a similar situation, please contact The Center at NFSB and schedule an appointment.