Mirza Lugardo, PhD StudentMarriage and Family Therapy
In Her Voice: A Survivor’s Story
“It’s like the universe is aligning to rewrite my narrative,” said Mirza Lugardo, a PhD student in the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Antioch University New England (AUNE). “I’m a survivor and a thriver.”
Mirza’s narrative began in Puerto Rico, in a family home that had no plumbing. At age twelve, she fled to the United States with her mother and brother to escape an abusive stepfather. But life in Newark, New Jersey, wasn’t much easier. “I went from a place where education was revered and we competed for good grades to a place where it seemed that you competed to see who could get the most F’s or be the most violent,” said Mirza, who had been a top student in Puerto Rico. “I became very depressed and contemplated suicide; I was very afraid of the violence surrounding me. But something kept pushing me. I knew I was smart. I wanted to be an A student, but learning English was not easy.”
After graduating from high school and moving to Boston, Mirza worked in social justice, first for Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, an organization that advocates for Puerto Ricans’ tenant rights, then at Casa Myrna Vazquez Inc., New England’s largest shelter system for battered women and children. “That was my segue to the mental health field. I really wanted to be a clinician, not just a paper pusher.”
She attended Cambridge College, where she earned an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree in psychology and management, another master’s, in counseling psychology, and a certificate of advanced graduate studies with a specialty in addiction counseling. With that academic work under her belt, she easily passed the state board exams to be licensed as a mental health counselor and an alcohol and drug abuse counselor.
Mirza first heard about AUNE at Cambridge College, but it took a while for her to get the courage to apply. When AUNE accepted her into the PhD program for Marriage and Family Therapy in 2011, she had been working for seven years at Harrington Hospital, in a program funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. She is now director of the Intensive Family Services program, working with chronically mentally ill children and their families. That program, under Mirza’s direction, just received a ten-year grant of $6 million.
A Claim to Social Justice
When Mirza arrived at AUNE, she applied for and received a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration / American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (SAMHSA/AAMFT) Minority Fellowship. The fellowship program’s goal is to educate more marriage and family therapists from ethnic minorities who are culturally competent and who can expand mental health and substance abuse services for minority populations. It provides training as well as financial support.
Mirza also went to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the AAMFT fellowship program. More funding is needed for marriage and family therapy programs in the arena of social justice, she said. It’s something she knows all about. “Nothing has come easy,” she said. “I feel like I have to work harder and continue to prove myself because I’m a petite woman that speaks with an accent and I am a Puerto Rican. Advancing and working as a minority has been a challenge. In many circles, nobody looks like me or talks like me—at times it feels very lonely.”
“They teach social justice in every course here, and I’m very, very happy about that,” Mirza said. “AUNE probably saw something in me, and I am grateful. For a good portion of my childhood, in the house where I grew up, we didn’t even have a flushing toilet, and here I am. It’s amazing.”
AUNE’s program gives Mirza, who lives in Southbridge, Massachusetts, the flexibility to juggle school, work, and family. “So far, with just a little effortless coordination, I am only away from home one night a week,” she said. “I am able to kiss my son on Wednesday mornings as he begins to get ready for his school day while I get going for mine. On Thursdays, I return home just in time to have dinner with my family and catch up on anything I may have missed.”
‘I Believe in Families’
With a PhD in hand, Mirza wants to become a faculty member in an MFT-accredited program and to mentor and supervise students in marriage and family therapy. She also wants to do research on a number of issues about which she’s passionate: children’s mental illness and their family systems, women struggling with mental illness, addictions and trauma, and relational issues of Latinos through the lens of social justice.
“You can’t treat people just as individuals,” she said. “You have to look at the system—what are the politics, the government policies, and how does that impact the children and families we are working with? You can give a child a voice, but what is he going to do with that voice when he gets home? So that’s why we work with families.”
“I believe in families and that you can make a difference with one child, one home, one family. I know that one person can make a lifetime of difference.”