Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awards 2011
Dr. Melba J.T. Vasquez, ABPP
BA English '72
Psychologist and Executive Director
Vasquez & Associates Mental Health Services
Remarks by Dr. Ann Marie Ellis
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
A practicing psychologist, scholar on ethics in psychotherapy and current president of the American Psychological Association, Melba Vasquez’ distinguished work as a counseling psychologist has transformed several areas of psychology in America. Her exceptional contributions were recognized recently when the 152,000-member American Psychological Association elected her as its president for 2011. She is only the 13th woman, and the first woman of color, to preside over the prestigious organization in its 120-year history.
Melba grew up San Marcos and developed her sense of social responsibility early in life, influenced by her parents’ grassroots political activities. Her father and mother were original members of the local American GI Forum for Mexican-American veterans of World War II, and Melba remembers walking door-to-door with her mother to enroll voters when the poll tax was abolished. Her remarkable mother, Ofelia Vasquez Philo, who is with us tonight, served as a member of the San Marcos school board, was the executive director of a Community Action program in San Marcos, and spearheaded San Marcos’ Hispanic Cultural Center, which opened last September. According to Melba, social advocacy through political activity was just something you did in their family.
So, it’s not surprising that in the 1960s, when Melba and her friends at San Marcos High School saw that ethnic minority students had no representation among the school leadership, they did something about it. Melba was elected as a class officer, a cheerleader, and a student council representative, and her friends won some offices, too.
After high school, Melba enrolled in summer school at Texas State, thinking that if she didn’t do well, she would try to find a secretarial job. Because no one in her family had been to college, she had doubts about her ability to succeed. She took an English composition course from Professor Nancy Grayson, and received the first “A” that Dr. Grayson ever gave in first-year composition. Melba’s work was exemplary. Encouraged by this success, Melba majored in English and Political Science, and it began to dawn on her that she might have some capability after all.
She taught English and Political Science for two years in Canyon middle school, where she met her future husband, Jim Miller, a teacher who became a school principal and later a licensed clinical social worker. He is now her partner in practice. Their daughter, Cecilia Miller Brittain, also attended Texas State University and was student body president her senior year.
At Canyon Middle School, Melba discovered that she and her students enjoyed talking to each other. So she began working on a master’s degree in counseling and, urged by her Ed Psych professor at Texas State, Dr. Colleen Connolly, she enrolled in the PhD program in counseling psychology at the University of Texas.
After obtaining her PhD, she held teaching, training, and counseling posts at Colorado State University and at UT-Austin for thirteen years before going into full-time practice in Austin.
Her psychotherapy practice has provided the inspiration for much of the important work she has done through the American Psychological Association. In her practice, she was seeing more than a few women who had been sexually abused by other therapists, a phenomenon that alarmed her in light of the APA Ethics Code that explicitly prohibited sex with clients. She began speaking and publishing papers about the problem and was elected to the APA Ethics Committee. There, she helped to adjudicate complaints of abuses by psychologists, and also participated in revisions of the APA Ethics Code, which is a living document. Subsequently, she and fellow Ethics Committee member Ken Pope produced an ethics book in psychotherapy and counseling, a groundbreaking work now in its fourth edition. Melba and three other authors have also published a book-length commentary for psychologists on the APA Ethics Code, in which they define the standards of ethics by presenting case studies of ethical dilemmas and ways of reasoning through them.
Watching the nation’s multicultural populations increase and remembering incidences of discrimination in her own life, Melba realized that psychologists needed knowledge of how to treat people from other cultures who seek mental health services. She blazed a new trail in the APA by co-founding its Society for the Study of Minority Psychology which provides a “home” for psychologists interested in the research, education, practice and advocacy for minority issues. For several years, Dr. Vasquez has taught psychologists to evaluate the mental health of multicultural clients based on their cultural norms and values rather than only those of mainstream white culture. She trains psychologists around the country in how to establish relationships of trust with clients from different cultures, and she will soon publish a book titled “Multicultural Theories” in which she examines cultural differences in America as well as the presence of racism and discrimination and their effects on mental health.
A sensitive and talented problem-solver, Melba has been called in at the highest levels by the APA and other organizations to help settle disputes involving claims of racism and bias, as well as other conflicts that arise.
Now, as president of the American Psychological Association, she has formed a task force to find strategies for reducing prejudice and discrimination among psychologists who treat racial and ethnic minorities and members of other socially marginalized groups.
She has also formed task forces to identify the actions psychology can take to improve the educational attainment of minority groups and to promote immigration reform from a mental health standpoint. She will broaden the APA’s multicultural dimension further as she represents the association at international conventions in Colombia, Turkey, and the Caribbean. And on behalf of the APA she will sign memoranda of understanding with psychological associations in countries around the world.
Melba has received some three dozen local, regional, and national awards recognizing her for her distinguished professional contributions, social-justice advocacy, and lifetime achievement. She calls her work with the American Psychological Association her hobby, but in truth it has been an extraordinary quest to raise concern for the mental health of America’s marginalized groups, in which she has shown passion, wisdom, and poise.
Melba, you work tirelessly to make the psychology profession the best it can be, and it is my privilege to present you with the highest honor given by the College of Liberal Arts, the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.