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With a current population of 40,087 students, and 46.2% of them identifying as Latinx, CSUF prides itself on being a Hispanic Serving Institution. (Eliza Green / Daily Titan)

With just three years of existence, Ánimo, the Latinx counseling emphasis for graduate students at Cal State Fullerton, has made it its mission to address the need for culturally prepared professionals in the field of counseling.

The direct translation of the word “ánimo” to English is courage, but Dr. Olga Mejía, associate professor in the department of counseling and the director for the program, said the name was more of an ode to the common Spanish saying “Ponte las pilas.”

“As I thought of all these different names for it, I wanted to capture something like giving energy, giving spirit, ‘pa’ lante’ right? That idea to move forward,” Mejía said.

Mejía said that part of her job is training students who are preparing to receive a master’s degree in counseling, but for Ánimo, the job is a little different.

“For Ánimo, it’s those students that are wanting to work — training them to be bilingual bicultural counselors,” Mejía said. “Culturally competent bilingual bicultural counselors to work with the Latinx community.”

Like other graduate programs, Mejía said that students looking to participate in Ánimo still have to be accepted to the counseling graduate program, one of the two misconceptions she said most people have about the program.

She said that the other misconception was that students wanting to focus on the emphasis have to be of Latinx background.

“I strongly feel that as long as you are willing to learn to be culturally competent, or you have cultural competency or cultural humility, you can work with Latinx people,” Mejía said. “Most of my students in Ánimo are of Latinx background but not everybody is, and I feel like everybody plays a really important role regardless of your background.”

Mejía said that out of the 21 classes in the counseling program, she took five and made them fit as part of the Ánimo emphasis.

Diana Blanco, the president of the Ánimo Latinx Counseling Association, is currently part of the second cohort of graduate students enrolled in the program.

Having done her undergraduate at Cal State Fullerton, she said her main goal was to enter a program that had a cultural component to her preparation toward a master’s degree.

“When I found out that Cal State Fullerton had the Latinx emphasis, I was like ‘Ok, this is the one.’ I actually only applied to this program. I didn’t apply anywhere else,” Blanco said.

With a current population of 40,087 students, and 46.2% of them identifying as Latinx, CSUF prides itself on being a Hispanic Serving Institution, and just last year, the university conferred a new record of degrees for underrepresented students, according to CSUF’s Office of Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness.

However, Mejía said the program has encountered a lot of obstacles in both starting and sustaining the program.

Mejía started thinking of a version of the program in 2011, after encountering multiple situations in her career as a therapist that were entrusted to her only because of her Latinx background.

By 2018, Mejía said she had gotten the program through curriculum committees and all the steps through the department and the university, all by herself. But since the beginning, Mejía said the program never received funding.

She said that by the last few months of the fall 2020 semester, she had started to feel overwhelmed. She said that doing mentoring, hiring faculty and organizing events for the program, all on her time, was finally taking a toll on her.

“I had asked many, many, many times before so it’s not like I hadn’t asked, but it was always like ‘sorry, there’s no funding, but you’re doing really good work and it’s bringing a variety to the university,’” Mejía said.

Mejía said she didn’t think the program would grow to be as large as it is, or that it would even have such a big response to it.

She said that she followed up by asking to be compensated for the work she was doing and the time she was putting in.

“I was told ‘no,’” Mejía said. “I said ‘okay then,’ then this is your decision then I can’t do it anymore.”

She said this decision came together from the department, the dean’s office and the university, and since they said they couldn’t fund it, Mejía said they were pushed to pause the program.

Mejía said that after three to four weeks of putting the program and its admission process on hold, they suddenly found funding for it.

Mejía said that there was a lot of commotion and support for the program when news of pausing the program was known.

“The need in the mental health fields, the need for training is there, but in terms of support at universities, it’s been like pulling teeth,” Mejía said.

Out of the 18,947 Hispanic or Latinx identifying students at CSUF, 3,422 of those students make up the College of Health and Human Development, and at the master’s level there are only 1,294 Hispanic or Latinx-identifying students.

Currently, the College of Health and Human Development houses 582 master’s students, but there is no information as to how many of those identify as Hispanic or Latinx.

“I definitely feel like the program has made my whole experience,” Blanco said.

Blanco said that programs like Ánimo are important when she thinks of her undergraduate experience and how every professor was white.

“Going back to my classes now and having professors that are Latinx, they speak Spanish, they understand me and seeing their roles, I think it also motivates us to go higher,” Blanco said.

Blanco said that even as a client, having a therapist who understands what you’re going through is validating and encouraging.

“I’ve gone through CAPS before, when I was an undergrad and sometimes I had to explain, because I’m a DACA recipient myself, I had to explain a little bit of that, and I just felt like I wasn’t really validated when it came to certain issues that I was going through,” Blanco said.

Mejía said that pausing the program took a toll on her, but she had to put herself first, even though it broke her heart.

“It’s not about, at all, it’s not about playing the victim, I think it’s more about if Cal State Fullerton says they’re an HSI then put your money behind it, and put your support behind it,” Mejía said.

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