When asked what he would like to be doing for a living 15 years from now, 23-year old Daniel Fernandez calmly replied: “I’d like to be part of a non-profit organization where I can expand my theoretical, cross-cultural work models.”

When he was pressed for specifics, out poured the passion.

“I want to be offering hope and healing to every psychologically troubled, under-privileged, low-income person within reach—whatever their color, ethnic heritage or religious beliefs might be,” he declared in no uncertain terms.

This declaration comes from a master’s degree candidate at California State University, Northridge, who is now enrolled in CSUN’s Marriage and Family Graduate Therapy Program. He plans to specialize in counseling and educational psychology.

A brand new view

Another ‘specialty’ of Daniel’s is calling for vast changes in the way marriage and family therapists do business—changes that he feels are essential if his lofty goal is to be reached.

As he sees it, “MFTs today conduct a one therapy fits all practice.” This approach, he believes, may make sense to people who are white and financially secure, but it’s way off the mark for people who are neither.

They live on the other side of a wide social crevice where much-needed therapy is rejected by cultural dictates.  Daniel maintains that the crevice can only be bridged by therapists who know about these dictates and understand them well enough to dispel the doubts they raise.

“This makes it imperative that they become familiar with cultural traditions and beliefs of low-income ethnic groups living in or near areas where they practice,” he added.

False charges

Culture-based warnings range from the idea that therapy is only for ‘crazy’ people to labeling it ‘useless because mere talk cannot cure anything.’ Another frequently heard criticism is that practices such as psychotherapy leave ‘stigmas worthy only of pity and/or ridicule.’

Daniel also noted that “by familiarizing themselves with their patients’ cultural heritages, therapists will gain a greater appreciation of the need to use techniques more sensitive to requirements and desires of individual patients.”

On the strength of his game plan, you’re probably ready to write Daniel Fernandez off as just another young and dreamy crusading idealist. Unless you know something about the background of the man behind the words. His story can turn you into a fan—fast.

A very moving tale

He was born into an unstable, poor but proud, Mexican-American family that lived in five different homes between the time he entered elementary school until his graduation from high school. During those years, this family-on-the-move grew from four members to six, with the births of Giselle and Michelle. Daniel was the oldest, followed by his brother Pablo.

The family’s nomadic lifestyle was necessary because Daniel’s father, Francisco, hampered by a limited education and no formal job training, had difficulty finding work. That’s the price competent, teachable people like Mr. Fernandez often pay in an economy dragged down by recession and high unemployment. Still, he managed to provide for his family by traveling to wherever work was available in Southern California and Nevada.

One of Daniel’s most memorable travel adventures was the family’s two-year stay in a Riverside, California garage. A garage was all the family could afford.

A happy ending

Other stops were Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Ventura and, finally, Oxnard, where Mr. Fernandez scraped together enough money to start his own home and building maintenance service. Today the business is thriving, as is the Fernandez family.

The light at the end of the tunnel shines warm and bright on all of them. But it cannot melt some memories of those years on the road. Who could forget being attacked on a street in Oxnard by two vicious racists, one of who broke a rib of Daniel’s with a baseball bat? Reason: his skin wasn’t white and his last name was Fernandez.

It’s also tough to blot out the blood-soaked image of a stabbing victim whose lifeless body was dumped on the doorstep. This shocker occurred outside the Fernandez apartment in a far from desirable neighborhood also in Oxnard. Understandably, the family moved to a better part of town.

Despite the horror, chaos, pain and struggle connected with his growing up years, Daniel remained a 4.0 (straight A) student throughout high school.

One dozen dean’s lists

He followed up that feat at Oxnard  College by earning three Associate of Arts degrees in two years. Subject matter included psychology, human services, as well as liberal arts and sciences. In addition to pulling off that trifecta, he made Dean’s List all four semesters. A performance he reprised for eight under graduate semesters at CSUN.

Daniel remains among the scholastic elite at his alma mater, working—make that working hard—toward a master of science degree in counseling and educational psychology.

CSUN’S challenging 3000-hour master’s program immerses students in the field of marriage and family therapy. Among its instructive activities are seminars, lectures, client visits and 100 hours of personal therapy.

Emerging from all this sweat and studying will be an extremely dedicated and qualified marriage and family therapist. It can be argued that Francisco and Martha AliciaFernandez also doled out therapy—the kind only parents can provide. And their children are all the better for it.

Putting family first

As Daniel recalls, “During the years we were moving from place to place, life was of course uncertain. But none of us became fearful or bitter. That’s because my father emphasized the fact that we were together, and that’s what really counted. Both parents did everything possible to make life pleasant and to let us know that we were loved, which made us all feel secure.

Also, being the oldest child, I felt I should assume certain responsibilities, especially where my brother and sisters were concerned.  This meant developing values early in life—and sticking to them. Luckily I had the right role models. My father was a devoted, hard working, family-oriented man. He helped keep us together by continually encouraging us to care for each other. And my mother taught us how to make the best of things by counting our blessings. That helped us get through some really hard times.”

Kudos for mom and dad

“All in all, I’m proud of my parents and grateful for their sacrifices. Due to their examples, I don’t think of that period in my life in sad or traumatic terms. I consider it a mostly positive experience.”

Thinking positive. What a wonderfully therapeutic idea in a world where all too often our thoughts are pointed in the opposite direction. Right, Daniel?