Meet The Scholars: Cheryl Aguilar

Cheryl Aguilar is . She is a member of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2022.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are. 

I am interested in exploring the mental health impact of migration, the interplay of policy, politics and mental health and the structural complexities bicultural and transnational families face, and creating interventions to support these communities. My most immediate research goal is to contribute to the literature about the impact of forced immigration family separations and to bring to light the challenges the families have experienced, their resilience and document effective clinical, mezzo and macro interventions that support the families.

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?  

Regarding my research topic, immigration family separations and reunifications are a part of the migration journey. We often talk about the joy of reunification but not enough about the challenges of the separation and stressors that may arise after families reunite such as attachment rupture. In the last decade in the social work field, I have come to learn from hundreds of families I have worked with about their experiences when they separate and later reunite. I have also come to learn about the repair opportunities and possibilities ahead, and the resilience, hope and faith that drive these families. My own work has re-connected me with my own experiences and lessons of family separation and reunification, lessons I reflect upon and draw from to inform my work. When we discuss immigration, it’s important to also discuss the support families need in coming together, providing spaces for healing including grappling with emotions about those they left behind, and immigration systems and policies that may hinder or support their mental health.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.

Through my practice Hope Center for Wellness, my team and I are providing therapeutic support to immigrant families that were separated under the last administration’s Zero Tolerance policy. Through our work, we are able to help parents and children begin the healing process of their traumatic experiences. We are honored to walk along with families in their determination to repair the wounds, connect with another and are honored to witness their hope, faith and resilience.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?  

The forced immigration separations of parents from their children under Zero Tolerance have caused undeniable trauma with long term effects. There is much focus on supporting the children and the family as a whole but more emphasis is needed in supporting the parents and helping them heal from the traumatic effects of the separations. Parents are expected to help their kids cope with the traumatic impact of the separation but to do so their pain needs to be validated and healed. Interventions that support families must include a strong parental component.

Who is a researcher you admire and why? 

Dr. Luis Zayas. As a social worker, academic and scholar, Dr. Luis Zayas has broken ground on research regarding immigration, particularly as it relates to children and unaccompanied minors. His contributions have led to our better understanding on the mental health impact of migration and empowering a generation of mental health providers working from a more culturally sensitive lens.

How do you think HPRS will complement your doctoral training?

HPRS complements my doctoral program through the well rounded support we get from leadership coaching to specialized training on policy making and research methods. Additionally, it provides us with access and resources to building relationships with change makers and experts in the health and policy fields

What part(s) of HPRS excite you the most?

All of them. One of the highlights of being in this program is connecting with like minded colleagues eager to leverage our research towards social justice and policy changes. I love our comradery and individual, and joint vision towards a more inclusive and fair future for the communities we aim to impact.

In the RWJF HPRS program we will work with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?  

I would like to influence immigration reform. Much of the distress immigrant families with undocumented or temporary statuses face is connected to their immigration statuses. We need a system that provides immigration reform, that reduces wait times and visa caps and one that safeguards the right to seek asylum.

Here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?

If I was stranded on a desert island, I would bring a hammock for my afternoon naps (I love napping), my smart phone particularly to listen to my favorite bachatas tunes and good sneakers to go on long walks.

Read Cheryl’s bio.


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