New tenure-track faculty discuss importance of being authentic selves in scholarship

Many students and faculty members view San Francisco State University and the city in which it is located as sharing a unique spirit of social justice and progressivism. 

Cynthia Martinez, an assistant professor in SF State’s Department of Counseling, was drawn to SF State by the community, the spirit of activism and her department colleagues. She grew up hearing stories from her parents — who immigrated here from Guatemala — about coming to the Bay Area in 1967 and seeing the Black Panther Movement, Civil Rights Movement and Harvey Milk. “The spirit of San Francisco State has that, with ethnic studies and the inclusivity it is connected to,” she said.

Her scholarship interests lie in participant action research, including working with BIPOC families to create non-traditional therapeutic wellness groups and trauma-informed, antiracist advocacy and radical self-care for practitioners experiencing collective trauma.

Martinez appreciates her colleagues’ receptivity to her teaching style and her pedagogical frameworks centered on community organizing, popular education, trauma-informed clinical/school supports, decolonizing critical praxis and anti-racist advocacy. The reason for this, she said, is “because they themselves are striving to create an open and inclusive learning community for our students. And I deeply respect the work they have done.”

Albert de la Tierra, an assistant professor in Criminal Justice Studies, was drawn to SF State because of his department and its explicit attention to structures of power. Meeting the faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice Studies helped him decide that SF State was where he wanted to build a career. 

"The collegial culture that my senior colleagues and my department have built — because of the intentions they have to recognize, honor and value each other's humanity first, and to build constructive criticism from that appreciation of each other's perspectives — pushed me towards SF State,” said de la Tierra.

De la Tierra holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Sociology from the CUNY Graduate Center, a B.A. in Criminology, Law & Society from UC Irvine, and advanced certificates in the Psychology of Leadership (Cornell), Critical Theory (CUNY), and Women's Studies (CUNY). He has years of experience teaching introductory and advanced undergraduate courses on qualitative research design, criminal justice studies and various sociological theories. He tailors coursework to students’ positionalities to promote their ability to interrogate the culture(s) in which they live.

"When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” — Audre Lorde

The two faculty members were asked to consider the above quote from Audre Lorde and how it applies to their work. Both expressed that focusing on being their authentic selves in their scholarship is vital. Martinez says this is something she has struggled with in terms of traditional research, which is often quantitative and framed in a way that is “for the community, not with the community.” Being trained as an activist community organizer, going into the field of psychology, and seeing people writing about multiculturalism and thinking about social justice, she aims to find ways to lift the voices of the communities she works with.

Martinez emphasizes the question she asks herself: “How can we bring the spirit of the families we are working with, and the activism of the people whom I learn from and continue to learn from?” While reading the book “All About Love: New Visions” by bell hooks, she was inspired by the idea that love is a verb, an action. This quote helps answer her question, "I feel most powerful when talking about this because it is grounded in my communities, in families, and is founded in a lot of love.”

For de la Tierra, “daring to be powerful” means thinking about love and respect and analyzing scholarship, which can include problematic ideals. He says he considers it essential to be honest with the people he works with and those in his scholarship; he targets their work to demonstrate to his discipline that their work warrants a close reading and examination. “I want to push my people, my folks, beyond the frameworks that they are producing and reproducing.”

“Daring to be powerful is taking the risk of alienating myself from the small number of communities that I have in academia,” de la Tierra continues. He notes that it is easy to criticize backward frameworks or people one does not necessarily like. However, the whole goal behind academia and scholarship is to find colleagues who understand each other. “We are not here to only say what is good about what we do; the best thing I can offer and someone else can offer me is constructive criticism.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are frequently discussed in higher education, and SF State has long championed those values. On the subject of DEI in her own life, Martinez shares, “I live it every day, and so there is not a break… systemic oppression is a trigger of insidious trauma.” She focuses on intersectionality in how power differences play out in our lives and in the context of being Latin/Latinx/Latina. “What does that [intersectionality] mean when it has been grounded in anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity? … I often think about this in terms of identity, and it means intersectionality and how it comes across in class, race and gender.”

As people of color, both Martinez and de la Tierra have lived their whole lives contemplating not only DEI but also exclusion, marginalization, racism and the violence of the state through microaggressions. De la Tierra adds, “I have been reflecting on how I combat white supremacy in my community, how I subscribe to white supremacy ideologies without actually knowing, and how to work to undo that.”

De la Tierra believes that higher education aids in cultivating people who ask questions, are genuinely curious to know more and have the courage to question their beliefs and truths. “You can learn almost anything online… but the promise of being at a university, especially ours, is that you will be in a room with people who dedicated their life to becoming critical thinkers,” he said.

Department of Counseling wins U.S. Department of Education funding to train school-based mental health professionals

The U.S. Department of Education awarded $5.7 million to the Department of Counseling’s Equity and Justice-Focused School-Based Mental Health training project for a five-year program to address the shortage of school-based mental health professionals. Partnering with Oakland and San Francisco Unified School Districts (OUSD and SFUSD, respectively), the Department of Counseling will train master’s students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to work with K-12 students in high-need schools. The project will be led by Department of Counseling Associate Professors Molly Strear (lead researcher) and Tiffany O’Shaughnessy and Professor Julie Chronister

Students in the department with a specialization or emphasis in School Counseling, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and Marriage, Family and Child Counseling are eligible for a $10,000 stipend each year they complete fieldwork in OUSD or SFUSD schools and commit to one-year of full-time employment in high-need K-12 schools after graduation. 

“As the only publicly funded school counselor training program in the San Francisco region of the Bay Area, and one of only three CACREP (Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs)-accredited programs in California, SF State has been integral in building capacity to meet the mental health needs of Bay Area youth for over 30 years,” said Strear. “Our students reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of the [region], and many choose to return to work in their Bay Area communities after graduation. The high cost of living coupled with rising tuition rates and lack of compensation for pre-graduate fieldwork makes it very challenging to pursue a graduate degree.”

In Memoriam: Michael Ritter

Michael Ritter

Emeritus counselor faculty and alumnus Michael Ritter (M.S., ’84) passed away unexpectedly at the age of 67 on Sept. 16. He was training for his eighth Alcatraz swim scheduled for Oct. 1 to raise funds for the Continue the Dream for Academic Excellence Scholarship, created to benefit undocumented college students. He was passionate about working with marginalized communities, particularly those impacted by homophobia, racism and other forms of oppression.

Ritter was a dedicated educator, counselor and social justice activist. His many contributions include work with the LGBTQ+ community, the Palestinian community, the Academic Senate of the CSU and the California Faculty Association (CFA). Most noticeable were his accomplishments serving as program director of Prevention Education Programs (PEP) within Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). He ensured students had access to information, counseling and resources on HIV/AIDS alcohol and other drugs, and sexual violence. He was also a lecturer in the Department of Counseling and touched many lives through all the years of teaching. He retired in 2016 after 32 years of service.

Ritter embodied the spirit of SF State and the wider San Francisco community. He was warm, compassionate, generous and kind. His nonjudgmental approach helped people develop compassion for themselves. He lived life every day to the fullest and died doing what he loved, in the place he loved, with people that he loved, and for a cause that he loved.

“Michael is loved by so many colleagues and alumni in the Department of Counseling and the loss ripples deeply with us. We fondly remember his warmth, energy and tremendous clinical expertise,” said Department of Counseling Chair Rebecca Toporek. “We had the fortune of his collegiality and leadership in an undergraduate peer counseling program in a partnership between Counseling and Psychological Services and the Department of Counseling. Through that, he not only taught the courses but also supervised and mentored many of our graduate students who assisted with the class while interning as mental health counselors on campus at the Peggy Smith Clinic. Teaching the peer counseling classes, Michael also had a powerful influence on students in our Counseling minor who aspired to become peer counselors, and many eventually apply for graduate training in counseling. Michael greeted every one of us with a warm smile, good humor and compassion. His spirit will continue to be strong with us.”

Ritter is survived by his spouse, Peter Toscani, and sister, Karen Ritter. Memorial services are currently in the planning stages for November, and information will be widely shared when it is available.

Introducing the new faculty 2022-2023

The College of Health & Social Sciences welcomes four new faculty members this year:

Miguel Abad

Assistant Professor, Department of Child & Adolescent Development

Miguel Abad

Miguel Abad (pronouns: he/they) is a youth worker with more than a decade of experience collaborating with community-based and nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area in numerous fields such as college access, career development, arts education and social movement organizing. As a youth studies researcher, Abad’s scholarly work touches upon race and social justice, out of school time education, youth development, youth activism, and participatory action research.

Angela Fillingim

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology & Sexuality Studies

Angela Fillingim

Angela Fillingim is a Salvadoran American sociologist. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and was a Chancellor's Post-Doctoral Fellow at UC Irvine. Prior to coming to SF State, she was the co-director of the Education and Social Justice Program and faculty in the interdisciplinary college at Western Washington University. Her teaching and research center social justice approaches to studies of race, human rights, social theory and Latinas/xs/os.

Cynthia Martinez

Assistant Professor, Department of Counseling

Cynthia Martinez

Cynthia Martinez’s scholarship interests lie in participant action research and include working with BIPOC families to create non-traditional therapeutic wellness groups. Martinez is also interested in studying trauma-informed, anti-racist advocacy and radical self-care for practitioners experiencing collective trauma. Her pedagogical frameworks include, community organizing, popular education, trauma-informed clinical supports, decolonizing critical praxis and antiracist advocacy. As a psychologist, her clinical training and expertise is in complex trauma and narrative and social justice postmodern theories. Prior to graduate school, she worked as an immigrant rights activist and obtained extensive experience in grassroots community organizing. Born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District, Martinez is a proud child of immigrants from Guatemala and a first-generation college and graduate student.

Soyhela Mohammadigorgi

Assistant Professor, Family, Interiors, Nutrition & Apparel Department

Soheyla Mohammadigorgi

Soheyla Mohammadigorgi received her bachelor’s in Industrial Design from the University of Tehran, her first master’s in Industrial Design from Amir Kabir University of Technology (Tehran Polytechnic), her second master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her Ph.D. from the University of Florida, majoring in Design, Construction and Planning with a concentration in Interior Design. Before joining SF State, she worked as a research assistant professor at Clemson University. Her research focuses on improving health care security through space planning and design.

A grad student’s winding road helps him find voice and purpose

When the deadline arrived for Christoph Zepeda to apply to transfer from Santa Barbara City College to UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), he needed a grade-point average of 2.75. He had a 2.79. “I just barely got in there,” recalls Zepeda, who will earn a master’s degree in clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling from SF State this spring. This near-miss was just one of many pivotal moments in an academic journey full of unplanned twists and turns — but following this uncertain road, Zepeda has found a profession he feels passionate about and a voice he uses to help others.

Falling in love with learning

Zepeda’s academic trajectory first veered from the norm at 16, when he dropped out of high school to attend community college full time. A self-described “emo” outlier in high school, the Goleta, California native preferred the autonomy of college, including the ability to customize his classes according to his own nascent curiosity. He earned his A.A., and, through a special transfer program, squeaked into UCSB. The move to the university was challenging — more tests, more work, more everything. But through a daily routine of long hours at the library, Zepeda began to find himself.

“I really fell in love with school and learning when I got to UCSB,” he says. The library’s eighth floor, sparsely populated for most of the school year, had tables where he could spread out and windowed walls looking out across campus, with the ocean in the distance. “It felt like a room of my own. It was magical,” he recalls. From that refuge, he dove into the rich stories and cultures of his comparative literature courses.

Then, inspired by his Holocaust Literature professor’s passion for her topic, Zepeda hatched a graduate school plan he describes as his “’Legally Blonde’ moment.” “I want to go for a doctorate!” he remembers thinking in a lightning-fast decision that echoed when the film’s lead character suddenly decided to enter law school despite minimal preparation. Eventually he decided on a master’s in English literature and raised his sagging GPA to 2.98 — close enough to SF State’s 3.0 requirement to get him admitted — conditionally — to the English Department. Even though he met his goal, scraping by yet again was deflating, and it took its toll on Zepeda’s self-esteem.

“Learning to allow myself to be myself — that’s what was hard, in the beginning,” he recalls. “In Santa Barbara, I felt like my life needed to follow a script. Even though I was overcoming some difficulties,” he says, referring to financial struggles and an emerging awareness of learning disabilities, “I was still really hard on myself.”

“I didn’t know you just stand up for something you believe in, fearlessly. Seeing that modeled in a way that wasn’t aggressive, and was more uniting — that was something I wanted to be able to do.”

More course-changes

A year spent saving up money and organizing his financial aid helped smooth the transition to graduate school and SF State, and Zepeda knocked out his course requirements in two years. But when it came time to write his thesis, burnout set in. To take a break but still stay connected to school, he enrolled in a certificate for teaching reading to adults and became involved in extracurricular activities, serving as an officer in student organizations for English and comparative literature.

Thanks to that self-granted two-year extension, Zepeda not only finished his thesis, but his forays into campus leadership led to an editorial internship with the city — experience he parlayed into an editorial job right after graduation, at the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP), based at Alliant International University.

The irony is not lost on Zepeda that it was his time spent away from his degree work that set positive events in motion. “My burnout led to doing student leadership positions, which led to an internship, which led to a job,” he says, retracing his erratic trajectory. Writing your own script, he was discovering, could be a really good thing.

Finding ‘home’

Sold on the value of getting involved, Zepeda joined CSPP’s multicultural committee, where he found role models, including Janie Pinterits, who directed the school’s master’s in clinical counseling program. “She had a spirit of wanting to advocate for the people with least amount of power in a situation,” he says, inspired by Pinterits’ ability to call out injustices. “I didn’t know that you could do that — I didn’t know you just stand up for something you believe in, fearlessly,” he says, adding, “Seeing that modeled in a way that wasn’t aggressive, and was more uniting — that was something I wanted to be able to do.”

Recognizing that a professional degree created the means to achieve that end, he started taking classes in Pinterits’ program. When his contract ended — along with the free employee classes — heading back to SF State for a counseling degree made sense. “What I love about San Francisco State is it just represented a sense of home,” he says.

He especially liked that SF State’s numerous specializations within the counseling program — there are six — allowed him to learn about the variety of professional directions his classmates were heading in. A double-coincidence of two CSPP faculty members, Tiffany O’Shaughnessy and Alison Cerezo, moving to SF State at the same time he did, added to the comfort zone. Professor Julie Chronister, his academic advisor, offered feedback and encouragement, sometimes extending office hours to accommodate his schedule. Chronister says Zepeda uses her input to strengthen his counseling skills, knowledge and attitude. “He is a quiet yet powerful voice for accessibility, social justice and cultural and disability competence,” she says of his passion for helping underserved populations, many of whom face barriers he himself had to overcome.

Embracing the journey

Looking ahead to a spring graduation, Zepeda, now 33, hopes to work in a community mental health facility and launch a small practice where he can provide culturally sensitive, trauma-informed care. Now that his professional career is on track, are his herky-jerky days over? Probably not, he laughs, explaining that a gerontology focus somehow led him to a clinical practicum working with children. “But I’m embracing it more.”

Zepeda’s story is most remarkable for what it isn’t — it isn’t about grand, long-term goals or dramatic sacrifices to reach them. It isn’t about the labels that might be applied to him: learning-disabled, Latino, gay, and from a low-income home — though, he notes, those dimensions of his identity have certainly informed his life experience. Mainly, Zepeda defines his story as following the road his love of learning has taken him on so far, and letting go of judgment when he didn’t have highest GPA or the fastest finish time, or even a firm grasp on where each change would take him.

“You have to capitalize on those pivotal points,” he now understands, “and maybe not write off things you didn’t think you’d do.” If he can be a model for others, he says, “I want people to be comfortable with who they are, and feel that sense of home-ness.”