For Jorge Torres-Sáenz, PsyD, living and working in rural Yakima, Wash., offers the chance to have his student loans repaid through the National Health Service Corps, and much more: unique opportunities for professional development, a gratifying, diverse career, safe neighborhoods for his son and the opportunity to own his first home.
Torres-Sáenz, who was raised in Mexico and fluently speaks Spanish, works at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. He has served as a staff psychologist in its Behavioral Health Services section since the NHSC-the federal program that provides debt relief to health professionals who work in underserved areas-placed him there in 1999. He applied for the slot when he found himself financially hard-pressed after earning his degree from the University of Denver. Living in Portland, Ore., with more than $90,000 in student loan debt, he realized that buying a home for his family at an affordable interest rate was out of the question.
It took several years for Torres-Sáenz to get placed in the NHSC: He hit barriers that included state licensure restrictions, a lack of placement opportunities, bureaucracy and managed care. But he persisted-going so far as to meet with NHSC and Oregon state officials to discuss his stumbling blocks. And when he was finally placed in Yakima, the clinic paid for his move, matched him with a realtor and loaned him the down payment on a house.
As the sole bilingual, Hispanic clinical psychologist in the eastern part of Washington State, Torres-Sáenz treats many Mexican migrant farmers-and their families-who work the Pacific Northwest's world-famous fruit orchards and vineyards. Typical problems he sees include depression, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, disruptive behavior disorders, and anxiety and family friction caused by adolescents' desire for more independence than their parents had growing up in Mexico. Women he treats often feel a lack of support from their husbands, who work long hours in the agricultural industry. In some cases, the women have traveled to Yakima from Mexico to reunite with husbands who they discover have started new families.
Torres-Sáenz's debt will be eliminated this year: Participants get $50,000 in debt relief for an initial two-year commitment and an additional 39 percent of that amount to pay taxes on the loan. They can also extend their commitment for $35,000 in additional relief per year. And while Torres-Sáenz's commitments end in March 2004, he's tempted to remain in rural Yakima because it offers him professional diversity-he juggles teaching, consultation, supervision, clinical work, testing and program development-as well as creativity. Because psychological services were so lacking for the Mexican migrant farm workers when he first came to Yakima, he's had the opportunity to develop new programs such as "The Incredible Years," a parenting program that aims to reduce substance abuse and violence in families with young children. He's introduced testing and assessment for special populations and collaborated with other psychologists to implement a program where mental health professionals team with primary-care physicians to provide services.
"I'm grateful to be offered different roles based on many needs that are difficult to fulfill without the specific training or ethnic background," says Torres-Sáenz, whose job has also sent him to Spain to present a talk on his parenting program and to Mexico and Italy to receive specialized training.
And while the professional perks are bountiful, Torres-Sáenz is father first-; he and his wife, Aurora, a Montessori guide who teaches Spanish to preschool children in Yakima, may relocate to Mexico when his NHSC commitment is up. There they'd be closer to extended family on both sides and have a drier climate for their son, Jorge Julián, who has allergies and Tourette's syndrome.
Torres-Sáenz encourages new professionals to consider the NHSC not only for the debt-repayment assistance, but for the creative opportunities, the rewards of helping the underserved and the lifestyle: "It's less stressful than city-living, there is no traffic and no lines in stores...no variety, but less hassles, and certainly more time to enjoy what is important in life, relationships!"
And he predicts that as more psychologists join the NHSC, the program will increasingly value their diverse skills. NHSC is based on a medical model that values direct services to clients, Torres-Sáenz points out, and he's worked to educate program officials on how psychologists provide services differently from physicians-through supervision, training, research and program development as well as through direct services. He says he hopes others will continue his efforts.