COE Connections Episode 2: Assistant Professor Jennica Paz

December 15, 2022
Dr. Jennica Paz

The San Diego State University College of Education recently launched COE Connections, a new podcast on research and scholarship in the college.

In our second episode, Jennica Paz, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, joins interim associate dean for research Rachel Haine-Schlagel to discuss her passion for ensuring mental health and wellbeing for youth from minoritized backgrounds.

Listen on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel:

Welcome to COE Connections, the College of Education research and scholarship podcast series. I'm your host Rachel Haine-Schlagel. I'm the interim associate dean for research for the College of Education and an associate professor for Child and Family Development here at San Diego State University, a Hispanic-Serving Institution on the land of the Kumeyaay. This is our second episode of the series and I'm joined today by Dr. Jennica Paz. 

Jennica is an assistant professor in the Counseling and School Psychology department. She is a nationally-certified school psychologist and a licensed clinical psychologist. Jennica was born and raised here in San Diego. She is a proud first-generation high school and college graduate and breaker of cycles of inter-generational poverty and trauma. She completed her doctoral degree at UC Santa Barbara's Department of Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology. 

Jennica is passionate about ensuring high quality and culturally-affirming service delivery to local capable youth with histories of adverse life circumstances. Her research involves an array of interests but centers on promoting mental wellbeing among youth of color and from minoritized cultural and linguistic backgrounds — especially those with experience in the foster care system, a system that she has firsthand experience with. Jennica currently works on two Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funded projects: Project HEAL and Project TLC, both of which focus on supporting youth in foster care. 

She currently serves as co-director of her department's school psychology program, and she is active in various service commitments across campus and in her community — including serving as co-chair for the Promises to Kids Guardian Scholars scholarship committee for former foster youth seeking higher education. So welcome, Jennica! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Before we get started, I wanted to mention I'm in my office in Lamden Hall. Where are you today?      

Jennica Paz:

I am just across the way in North Education and I could give a wave out my window and almost see you from where I'm at. So I'm very close by.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel:

Very close by! Thank you so much for being here today and I also want to say a really big thank you for taking the time to do this while you are getting ready to have a baby next month. So there's really a lot of hard deadlines that come with having a baby. (laughs) So really thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your super important work before you embark on that journey again. OK. So, I have a few questions prepared and let's see how it goes. So my first question is, why do you study what you do?

Jennica Paz:

Thank you for that question, and thank you for having me this morning. I think a lot of what you mentioned in terms of my background has absolutely led me on that path where I'm at today. Some of that firsthand experience with the different systems with respect to health and human service agencies and the public school systems, I have firsthand experience with, so I think I bring some unique insight in terms of some of the things that work well and some of the things that don't work so well. 

I look across my family and I also see how vastly different our outcomes and life trajectories were. So I've really become committed to trying to help interrupt, and maybe also highlight the things that are working well with some of the systems, but also knowing firsthand which areas could use improvement. And so I think for me there's that personal drive, absolutely, that's also informed by those lived experiences. And then professionally I'm very fortunate to have landed here at SDSU where I feel there's a space for me to have this congruency between my teaching and my service and my scholarship. They're all intimately connected, reciprocally and transactionally. 

My service in the community intersects with my identity as a scholar, a practitioner, but also most importantly a community member. So I aim to promote all these strength-based approaches across school psychology service delivery, promote critical thinking and problem solving abilities that are grounded in a social justice mindset. A lot of this stems from being a first generation high school graduate, actually, and college and graduate. I'm also a multiracial Latina woman from a foster care background. I'm super committed to providing a more culturally-affirming graduate school experience for my grad students, as well. Maybe much more than what I experienced. 

And that, in turn, building up a pipeline of diverse school psychologists to address that shortage of BIPOC practitioners. Especially those who are equipped to serve students such as those who have experience in the foster care system. So a lot of what I do remains unseen in how I am authentically connecting with my diverse students and how I craft my course content so that cultural assets, identity and language, experiences of oppression, are central and given space to process. And lastly I strive to become one of the less than 0.5% of former foster youth to become a tenured professor. And I hope to serve as inspiration for the next generation of capable students in or from foster care.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel:

Wow, that is just amazing the obstacles you have overcome to be in the place that you are and to have the ability to impact change at the level that we're able to in the academic world. One of the things that really struck me about the work that you shared with me was how focused it is on actually changing practice in the real world. So for example you sent me a policy piece where you wrote about the need for strengths-based assessment policies, and you didn't just write about it you actually wrote a draft policy that people can copy. We both know from the academic side of things it's so much easier to edit something than it is to write something yourself. It's really powerful that what you do professionally comes from both your personal and professional experiences. 

My second question is actually a request. Can you please describe an example of the impact your research has had on the community?

Jennica Paz:

Sure. I've thought a lot about this in terms of impact. And I don't feel I've even scratched the surface of the impact I've yet to create, especially in this community. I would say thought if I were to sum up some of my impact I think it has to do with collaborations and the networking that I have been able to build in this community and reflective of that have been the many partnerships that have grown and folks who have been seeking my collegiality and collaboration on various projects that are all aimed at supporting wellness. And I can tell you how different that feels from hey can we get some support in assessing schoolwide mental health and using these traditional pathology-based screeners, but instead this reputation has built where I have had the good fortune to engage in collaborations with psychiatrists, residential treatment settings and in public schools, community-based organizations, as well as school districts. And I've been able to shape assessment practices and policies that involve a commitment to systematically identifying youth psycho-social strengths and their assets into their educational and mental health planning. 

So my work has really gotten people excited to challenge the status quo, including that policy piece you mentioned. An alumni student of mine who is a former G.A. on one of my projects, they've gone on to disseminate findings and policy recommendations to service providers within their school district, and has helped shape a whole school wellness assessment practice. So taking findings and then disseminating that into practice, and now it's kind of an annual thing that they're doing is screening the whole school for wellness and helping triage positive psychological intervention groups based on some of this work, which is what it's been about all along. 

And also, in the spirit of connections and collaborations, is how I'm framing this impact, I've also from my work been asked to present with community partners at state conferences. And at these state conferences they're really dedicated to advancing educational equity and resiliency among students in foster care. So I have found some platforms where this work can really land and resonate and from that participation in work groups seeking to change some legislation or policy. So when I think about impact, there's so much more coming and change is slow, but I can say I feel like the seeds of that collaboration and the deep network and connections I've been able to build within the community is, for me, how I'd like to sum up my impact. Just that integral connection and the fact that folks really are starting to engage in this mindshift thinking from looking at the pathology-laden language that really has plagued, eespecially youth in foster care, to really a actionable ways that we can promote the strengths and use that to help students on a more thriving life trajectory. 

I know that is a longer-winded answer, but I think that's some of the way I'd like to best capture my impact. It's very much ongoing and not something I see stopping anytime soon.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel:

It was certainly long, not long-winded your response, and I think it reflects how broad and deep your impact has been already. And I really love your attitude around “So much more is coming.” I think that that is a really cool way to think about our professional lives as faculty members and community collaborators. And what a beautiful example of a student you mentioned who was able to implement policy changes in such a way that they have become part of the norm. That really is the gold standard, right, for the work that we all try to do is to help schools and communities shift their culture, shift their norms, shift what they do normally. So that was amazing. Now I want to ask you what do you struggle with the most in studying your area?

Jennica Paz:

Oh my gosh, the struggle is real, that is for sure. I am a little bit kind of grumpy. I tune in with a really close ear when I hear people using terms such as strengths-based or wellbeing. It’s getting to the point where it’s almost becoming kind of a trend. Slap it on the title of a presentation. Because I find oftentimes they’re included to attract some interest, but then I really dig in to find another model or framework or approach, often I find they’re not really rooted in any kind of comprehensive framework or approach that’s really driving their practice. This is leading to the fact that I think it can be incredibly harmful and frankly annoying to students in foster care who have providers who engage in this kind of surface-level dialogue involving strengths or they’re told to just try it out. It can quickly turn into or be received as a toxic positivity that can easily end up minimizing the raw trauma and hardships that underlie the needs of youth in foster care. 

So I struggle in finding the balance of using psychometrically sound and comprehensive systems to measure student wellbeing, but making sure there’s room for youth voice, their culture and experiences, to shed light on their narratives and lived experiences, while honoring the social justice work that I care so deeply about. And our population is very easily exploited for our narratives and our stories. I can’t tell you how many times while in undergraduate and graduate school I was invited to do guest speaking events that were just for free and just to use my story for the benefit of others to try and gain funds for whatever organization. So I really care deeply about not exploiting our narratives and our stories. 

And so these are some cycles that I don’t want to perpetuate with my own research that I’m engaging in with youth who are currently in foster care or alumni in foster care. So instead I try to really find ways to empower youth, especially at a younger age, by highlighting and bringing awareness to their own power and cultivating their strengths so that they can take ownership of their narratives and create a more fulfilling life. So that’s something that I’m always very conscious about and intentional about in my work and the way that I’m framing studies, and also why it takes a little longer. I’m not here pumping out article after article because the work that I’m doing I want to make sure I’m honoring their voices and their narratives and not exploiting. And then taking time to digest information gleaned about the population in a way that the community and folks and providers and that students themselves can benefit from first before I have that intern add another line on my CV. 

But it’s not about that in any way, shape or form. That’s something I hope other folks around campus can also find, especially our junior faculty as their engaging in this work too, is to find that meaning making. That’s been a journey that I’ve been on and I think I’m very proud of where I’m at with respect to that, in terms of the ways I’m engaging in this psychometrically sound methodology, but also honoring the voices and narratives of the students and youth that I’m working with.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel:

Yeah, I mean, I think that the fact that you had those experiences of being exploited for your background,f giving talks about your experiences in the foster care system, seems like that really informs how you go about doing your academic work, and that you have this really deep, rich understanding of the possibility of exploitation that maybe many of us do not. It might be harder for us to gain that perspective and to fight that urge to get that other line on our CV. 

And I think one of the things that I was really struck with in some of the reading that I did that you sent me was this idea with strength-based assessment. You sort of talked about it as kind of a fad, right, or a key word. If you put that word on something, you're going to get more attention. You're going to get more funding um, and that there's not really a deep commitment to actually developing that field, developing measures, and then using the information that's collected in a meaningful way. 

And I loved when you talked to one of your papers about the idea that there can be a dialectic sort of the two. Both can be true. That student assessment of needs is critical, and by itself is harmful, and that there can also be a very equally rich and impactful assessment of strength. I thought that's a really cool way to approach it. Sort of like really validating the current system, while also saying the system needs to change.

Jennica Paz: 

Absolutely. Yeah, I appreciate you picking up on that. In the public health field that's called complete mental health or complete wellness. In school psychology we have frameworks calling it dual-factor models of mental health assessments. And if we are really only looking at what's wrong instead of the what's strong — I think we are going to set ourselves up for pigeon holing. We're setting up students for some failure. We're not honoring the assets and strengths they have to help them buffer and overcome some of those um challenges, that of course, we know you in foster care are facing. That's very, very well documented, so we we already know that. And so we need to do that. And you know, kind of shift more on the healing and the thriving versus kind of just dwelling in the pathology. That's very well documented. So I appreciate you picking up on that.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel:

Yeah. Another thing I picked up on is just sort of where I'm … so many things that were so exciting. And what I was reading was the idea you put forth that resiliency is not an attribute, even though it is almost always used as an adjective. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Jennica Paz:

Yes, yes, I love this topic, and I love that you're pinpointing this piece, too. This is a line of thought that I've picked up from my Ph.D. Advisor, Dr. Michael Furlong from UC Santa Barbara. And it is the idea that we should really be thinking about resiliency much more as a verb. It's an active process, versus just a noun as a trait as an attribute. And some of this is also informed by work of Ann Masten, who talks about resilience as sort of having this innate ordinary magic. And I was actually — when I was driving this morning I was thinking a little bit about this, too, and it's on my mind very often, because I also have a book I'm working on which is my own recipe for resiliency. And so I hope that comes out. 

But another analogy that comes up for me is, I think, about Tupac and how he says that “Just working with the scraps you were given, mama made miracles every Thanksgiving.” And this is that idea for me of the ordinary magic that Ann Masten talks about is that we often think of resiliency as having to have some sort of superpowers to overcome. But the truth is is that we can make that out of almost anything. And I think that if we are really slowing down in attuning to our students there is a lot that we can identify. Doesn't need to be something magical. It doesn't need to be some other brand new evidence based intervention that we're focusing all this money and time, but actually slowing down, connecting, getting to know the youth and identifying what some of their strengths, interests and just connecting with them before anything else. I think that that goes a very long way. 

So it's working with those scraps. My recipe for resiliency is a kitchen sink method and refrigerator-ade is how we talked about it growing up. Sometimes it might mean I'm eating a peanut butter and relish sandwich for my dinner. And that's a true story that sometimes that’s all we had in the refrigerator. But it nourished me and fed me enough so that, I, you know, was able to get through another day. That might not sound all that tasty. That might not be slapped with some gold star, gold standard and space intervention to get me through it. Um, but I think it's honoring and connecting those sort of innate strengths that students might already have or possess and not be aware of. And even if it isn't something, all that fancy or sophisticated, and those may change and evolve, reciprocally and transactionally over time. And what we have today might not be the same as what we have tomorrow. But youth in foster care always find a way. We're very crafty. We always have a way. 

And so, again, it's thinking about this longer-term trajectory of resiliency and the path towards thriving is a very active process that we're actively, you know, scouring our resources, our community, and making it work to survive another day. So I want to move us from that surviving to thriving. And that piece where you're talking about the resiliency as this much more of a verb is in line with that, just from just surviving to thriving.  

I told you I get excited when you talk about that topic. Thanks for picking up on that

Rachel Haine-Schlagel: 

I think you pretty much have given a general answer to my last question in talking about moving from surviving to thriving. But I'm going to go ahead and ask it anyway. I am also a clinical psychologist, and one of the things that I will often ask when I've done clinical work is sort of, you know. If I could wave a magic wand and make things be the way you want them to be. What would that look like? So for you, you know, if we could wave a magic one, and make society as a whole move towards your vision of high quality and culturally affirming service, delivery to capable youth with histories of trauma. What would that look like?

Jennica Paz:

Um, You know what this is? This is also reminding me somehow of my work as a clinical training specialist, and I would do these trainings for folks in the community, stakeholders, providers. Like they want a to do, and what not to do list. And so I used to actually frame my trainings in a to do and what not to do list. So I sort of um I'm approaching that question from that mindset. Um, I think what we would not be doing is we would not be labeling students as emotionally disturbed. That'd be really great to get that out of our language and out of our law. Um, especially because not labeling them due to experiences that happened to them. We wouldn't be labeling them as socially maladjusted, either, which a lot of youth in foster care it's one of those like exclusionary factors from preventing them from accessing special education supports,

So on the to do side, we would be approaching them from a place of empathy and assume that they're doing the very best they can with the skills they currently have. We would be seeking connection before correction. We would also be using more inclusive narratives in books and different television programming that children are exposed to, that are highlighting the more various home living situations and backgrounds that our youth in foster care experience. So there's more congruency and alignment with that and the exposure. So other youth are seeing that there's different ways of you know, of upbringing and terms such as capable youth would rather readily flow from our tongues instead of vulnerable or marginalized.

And when you're asked to write research papers or engaging work. You're always asked to describe the problem. And so we're often saying, well, foster youth are among the most vulnerable population. But as you were able to kind of review in some of my bio and background, I really try to model this language of not vulnerable, but if we take out those first few letters of that, vulnerable to capable. Let's keep the able part of that word, but they are capable. And what a difference that might make if we are approaching students from that space is being capable versus vulnerable. And how might that shape our service delivery planning? 

So those would be some of my ways that I would like to change society.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel:

Oh, I really really hope we get there someday. What youtalk about sounds absolutely wonderful, and you know I'm gonna also take what you said and and think about it in my own teaching, because I teach research methods, and one of the things I teach is how to sort of dissect a research article. And the first question is, What is the social problem? Yeah, that's  how I have them start. So I'm going to be thinking about what we've talked about in terms of my own teaching as well. 

So thank you so much, Jennica, for talking with me and taking the time. This has been just amazing. You're doing just phenomenal work. It sounds like the impact you've had already is tremendous, and you're just getting started. 

Jennica Paz:

Yes, thank you. I really appreciated the space and sharing time with you, and I'd love to come in on one of those classes where you're engaged in some of that work. See it in action. 

Rachel Haine-Schlagel:

Sounds good, all right. Thank you. 

Jennica Paz:

Thank you, Rachel.

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