A Life of Service: Martin Alvarez’s Path From Struggling Student to U.S. Marine to Clinical Psychologist

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This is the twenty-first article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.

In 1999, while Martin Alvarez was a full-time M-A student, he also worked two jobs to support his siblings and parents, staying up until 3 a.m. every night to study for his honors classes after work. He remembered, “I was trying to do well academically, but I was exhausted. I would jump on the bus every morning, head over to school, and fall asleep in class. I definitely felt a little lost during my high school years.” After dropping out of college and serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for 8 years, Alvarez earned a B.A. in general education with a concentration in psychology and an M.A. in psychology with a focus on family therapy. He is now finishing up his dissertation in clinical psychology, also with a focus in marriage and family therapy. Alvarez has been working at Telecare Los Angeles, a community-based mental health program in Southern California, for the past eight years, and has helped hundreds of patients.

Looking back on his life, Alvarez said, “My parents sacrificed everything they possibly could for my siblings and me. They grew up on ranches in the hills of Mexico. My dad was 19 and my mom was 15 when they were married in Mexico. They immigrated to the United States three years later, trying to provide us with better opportunities than they had. They were illiterate and had never gone to school at all. Although we spoke Spanish at home, the first language they learned to read and write was English, which they learned while studying for the U.S. Citizenship test. After that, my dad started reading all these history books. He would come home with them and we were like, ‘Where did you get these?’ We were so proud of his whole process.”

“My dad was a master painter,” Alvarez added. “He could take any piece of furniture and make it look like an antique design. He had been working for a company in Southern California for about 18 years before he was laid off.”

When Alvarez was in 10th grade, his family moved into an apartment in East Palo Alto and his father found work as a painter at an airport in San Jose. However, less than a year later, he was laid off again. Alvarez explained, “I’m the youngest of seven siblings, so I was the only kid left at home at that time. My dad moved north to Santa Rosa looking for work, and we weren’t sure what was going to happen.”

Alvarez stayed in his family’s apartment in East Palo Alto and continued attending M-A for the rest of that month before moving in with his oldest brother who lived nearby with three kids of his own. He remembered, “I was really trying to make it on my own. I had been missing more school, working more, really trying to save money for food and to pay for another month’s rent by myself. Thanksgiving came around and I remember my college advisor Ms. Kleeman and another teacher Mr. Rodriguez stopped by my house to drop off a box of food. They were just checking to see if my family was doing okay because they hadn’t seen me in a while. I remember thinking like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they care this much.’ I could always rely on Ms. Kleeman. I knew so many other students with similar situations, friends who were working as much as they could as sole providers for their families while still in high school and she was out there advocating for all of them. Seeing how those teachers were working to support the community really changed my view of educators and made me want to pursue a field where I could make a difference as well.”

In 2000, at the beginning of the second semester of his junior year, Alvarez moved in with his brother who lived in Berkeley and transferred to Berkeley High School. He graduated from Berkeley High in 2001 and then attended San Francisco State University for a year before dropping out. “I wasn’t understanding the material, and I didn’t feel like I was cutting it with the classes, so I decided to move to L.A,” he said. 

In L.A, Alvarez worked shifts at restaurants, construction sites, and as an exterminator. He married and began to think about starting a family. He remembered, “I realized I really wanted to get my act together and be a really great provider for our family, so I got licensed as an exterminator and tried to start my own business.”

However, when the financial crisis hit in 2008, many people started losing their jobs and homes. Alvarez remembered, “People didn’t want to pay for an exterminator anymore. They were just like, ‘Nope, sorry, I’d rather just deal with the roaches or whatever on my own,’ because they could barely make ends meet themselves. And so we lost a lot of our savings. We were three months behind on rent, our two cars were repossessed, and my wife was pregnant, so it was really stressful.”

Alvarez and two fellow marines on the U.S.S. Tortuga.

So, Alvarez enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He remembered, “It was a time of war, and they were taking everyone. I was deployed to Iraq—but not in combat—and then to a ship called the U.S.S. Tortuga. I didn’t expect to be gone from home for so long, but it did get us through some really hard times, so I appreciated that.”

Alvarez with a group of Marines in Estonia.

“Because my life was so chaotic overall, the military gave me exactly the structure I needed,” he continued. “We woke up at 5 a.m., worked out every day, and always ate breakfast at the same time. Everything was so scheduled that there wasn’t much time for thinking, which was good for me at that time because I didn’t need to think—I was so overwhelmed with emotions and stress that I just needed guidance, and that’s exactly what I got. Even in those terrifying moments, the moments when I got deployed or when I couldn’t communicate with my family, I felt like there was enough guidance and structure in place that I could trust the people I was with.”

Alvarez after receiving his M.A. from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

He added, “I had a lot of good luck, being around the right people who cared about guiding individuals towards something better.” Alvarez’s supervisor, Gunnery Sergeant Cervantes, encouraged all of the Marines directly under him to start school again. Alvarez remembered, “That was the first time I took a psychology class,” he explained. “Everything just made sense. I was like, ‘Whoa, this is psychology?’ Like, ‘Where has this been all my life?’ I realized how psychology could be used, and that motivated me to learn more and more.” 

Alvarez served in the Marine Corps from 2008 to 2015. In September of 2014, he began looking for civilian work again. He said, “It was hard. I didn’t understand how to translate the skills I had learned to civilian-type employment. I applied to literally over 100 places—for desk jobs, insurance, you name it. I was like, ‘I don’t care where you put me, I will work hard and I will be the most loyal worker.’ And so I applied and applied and time was running out. My orders were about to expire and I didn’t have anything lined up. I was feeling that anxiety of not being able to pay my bills again.”

He continued, “Being a marine, you don’t really share your feelings or thoughts, but I had been focusing so much on doing all those psychology courses and talking and working thoughts out instead of holding them in. One day, I was at a barbecue with some friends and family and one of my friends was like, ‘Dude, you look really stressed, is everything okay?’ And I was like, ‘You know what? No it’s not, and I completely opened up to him.’ He was like, ‘Hey, you got your B.A., right?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ And he was like, ‘In psychology, right? Hey, my Telecare clinic is hiring!’ And I was like, ‘Really, can you get me a job?’ And he was like, ‘Well, I can’t get you the job but I can get you the interview.’ So I went over there and applied, and they went through several interviews with different team members and then called me back and hired me.”

Eight years later, Alvarez still works for Telecare. He said, “A lot of our patients have been part of the mental health system for a long time, and they aren’t really treated like people anymore. You can hear it in the way they speak. Often, they use their diagnoses to identify themselves. One of the most rewarding parts of my job right now is mentoring interns—our program draws interns from many local universities like University of Southern California, Cal State Long Beach, CSU Dominguez Hills and Cal State L.A. I love helping these kids who are just coming into the field and educating them on how to help the patients regain their sense of humanity, and reassure them that their diagnoses and the things that happen to them are only pieces of their story, not who they are.”

Alvarez’s advice to current M-A students: “I honestly believe that the best advice that I was ever given was to never be afraid to ask for help. I think we often get stuck in this feeling that we’re alone and we tend to isolate ourselves from the possibilities that are around us. Asking for help sounds really easy, but probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever seen anyone do is admit that they can’t do something on their own. It was the ability to ask for help that really changed the course of my life. 

When Ms. Kleeman and Mr. Rodriguez would check up on me or ask me how I was doing or go the extra mile just to just to provide some support, I feel like if I had been able to talk to them more, to open up a little bit more and to not be so afraid of being vulnerable, I wouldn’t have struggled as much as I did to do all those things on my own. Teachers like Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Kleeman, they hold that light for individuals that start feeling hopeless. People like them, they help people feel like they’re worth investing in and worth fighting for. 

And on the flip side, be willing to ask if others are okay. It’s so easy to just say, ‘Hey, how are you doing today?’ and then like, ‘I’m good!’ and carry on with your day, but you should actually look at the people around you and see them as people. Students, they know each other. They know how their peers speak, they notice their tones, and the differences in their postures and their smiles. So when things seem off just taking that extra moment to say, ‘Wait, I feel like things are off,’ and going with your gut instinct and checking in with the people around you can make all the difference.”

Two of Alvarez’s favorite books.

On his favorite books, Alvarez said, “My all-time favorite book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, I think because it’s filled with so much hope. You’re wandering around trying to figure out what your life purpose is, and you just happen to meet these right people. I relate a lot to the story. It’s one of those books I can re-read over and over. Another one I really love is called The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz, another Spanish author. It’s a similar story of a young kid experiencing the world and going on his own adventures.”

Alvarez with his daughter, grandson, and stepdaughter at his two-year-old grandson’s Moana-themed birthday party.

Alvarez added, “I often think back to the values I learned from my parents. They sacrificed everything to come to the United States, a place that felt foreign and unfamiliar to them, and they started a new life here. They taught my siblings and me that you can never just tap out, you always have to work hard. You have to have reason and purpose for what you’re doing. When my daughters came into my life, it all made sense. I completely understand why my dad was willing to leave not only Mexico to get to L.A. but then L.A. to get to East Palo Alto and East Palo Alto to get to Santa Rosa. He wanted to provide us with as many opportunities as he could. I took that to heart, and I want to do whatever it takes to support my daughters and give them the best opportunities I can, just like my parents did for me.”

Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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