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Community based research, commitment to helping others drives UW’s Valdez

April 21, 2014
by Todd Finkelmeyer

As an academic, Carmen Valdez certainly appreciates the importance of conducting quality research and the value of producing fresh knowledge that can advance a field.

But it’s the work that directly touches the lives of others that drives this associate professor with the Department of Counseling Psychology.

“I’ve heard that research often takes 20 years before it makes an impact on the day-to-day lives of people,” says Valdez, who joined the UW-Madison faculty in 2006.  “I always vowed that I wouldn’t let it take that long. That’s why I do community work locally and get excited when I can help set up a workshop for the Latino community in (Washington) D.C. It’s very fulfilling and exciting for me to think that this work is reaching people and communities, and helping those in need now -- not 20 years from now.”

Carmen ValdezThis commitment to outreach, community-based research and helping others is at the core of much of what Valdez does.  In 2013 alone Valdez was:

• Named to the Committee on Children, Youth and Families in January. This body is appointed by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest. The committee "ensures that children, youth and families receive the full attention of APA. It functions as a catalyst, interacting with and making recommendations to the various parts of the APA's governing structure, to the APA's membership, and to relevant divisions and other groups."

• Contacted over the summer by the APA’s Office on Ethnic Minority Affairs and the mayor’s office in Washington, D.C., and asked to develop a workshop that took place on Oct. 9 in the nation’s capital. This event -- which was tied to National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) and included a panel of speakers -- helped members of the Latino community find ways to address issues related to health and stress in urban settings.

• The lead author of a report that was the featured article in the September edition of the journal Family Process. The article was titled, “Feasibility, Acceptability and Preliminary Outcomes of the Fortalezas Familiaries Intervention for Latino Families facing Maternal Depression.”

The Fortalezas Familiars (Family Strengths) Program is a Madison-based, family focused intervention for Latina mothers with depression, other family caregivers and children 9 to 17 years old. The study specifically reports on the feasibility of recruiting and enrolling families into the intervention, families’ perceived value of the intervention, and the intervention’s preliminary clinical and family outcomes.

• The author of an online post that was featured in December on the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Benefits Society blog.

The post explains how many “Latino immigrant parents experience a breakdown in family communication because they only speak Spanish and their children only speak English. The inability to communicate about day-to-day experiences, such as school and friends, and about important family conversations, often leaves family members feeling emotionally disconnected and misunderstood.”

Valdez goes on to write how this topic took center stage during a recent group therapy session she led with Latino immigrant mothers with depression.  Her blog post then examines what psychologists can do to help families affected by such stress.

Indeed, it is this work with the Fortalezas Familiars Program that may be the best example of her commitment to outreach and community based research. When Valdez arrived at UW-Madison in 2006, she began linguistically and culturally adapting the Keeping Families Strong program for Latino immigrant families. Valdez notes that this adapted intervention has gone on to receive a great deal of support from both the professional and lay communities, and has been delivered in the Madison area since 2010.

A recent research paper examining the program’s preliminary outcomes, which was featured in the journal Family Process, highlights that the 12-week program indicated “positive changes following the intervention, including improved psychological functioning, increased family and marital support, and enhanced family functioning, as reported by mothers and other caregivers. Mothers also reported decreased conduct and hyperactivity problems among their children. Children reported positive changes in their psychological functioning and coping, parenting warmth and acceptance, and overall family functioning.”

“This program we do in Madison is something that really fulfills me,” says Valdez, who hopes to expand similar work across Wisconsin and into Chicago.

Valdez’s colleagues and peers are certainly taking notice of her quality work and range of efforts to make a difference in the lives of those she works for, and with. Valdez achieved a major professional milestone by being awarded tenure in April 2013. In addition, she was honored during the School of Education’s annual Faculty and Staff Distinguished Achievement Awards with the Award for Community-Engaged Scholarship, and this past September received the 2012-13 UW-Madison and UW System Outstanding Women of Color awards, which go to those who are "deeply rooted in both the campus and the Madison community in their work toward social justice, service, research and community building.”

“It really has been just an amazing year,” says Valdez, who is a licensed professional psychologist, and an affiliate with both the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. “Receiving these awards makes me feel like I now have a responsibility to be a role model for others who want to do similar work.”

In that regard, Valdez also is the new faculty director of the Advancing Health Equity and Diversity (AHEAD) program. This initiative is housed within the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s Collaborative Center for Health Equity, and is aimed at providing networking, mentoring and access to shared resources to early career scholars and investigators in health disparities research.

Valdez says that growing up in El Salvador, where so many live in poverty, opened her eyes to underserved and oppressed communities, and fuels much of her work today.

“Part of my job is to conduct research and publish and get my work out to other professionals,” says Valdez, who considers herself fortunate for being able to grow up in a middle class household in El Salvador. “But it’s when I get out and am able to work with people and different communities that I really become motivated. That is what drives me.”

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