Being a First-Generation American Gives Her an Edge as a School Psychologist

By Bill Ibelle, Editorial Director

After fleeing the brutal civil war in El Salvador, Karen Alvarez’s parents never imagined that their second daughter would become the first person in the family to go to college, let alone earn a master’s degree from a prestigious American university.

On Friday, Alvarez will receive her second graduate degree in school psychology and be honored as the student speaker for Bouvé’s graduation ceremony. Her program included an MS of Applied Educational Psychology in 2017 and a CAGS in 2019.

“Both of my parents left El Salvador because they wanted to create a better life,” said Alvarez. “I’m proof that their plan worked out.”

But it wasn’t easy.


Alvarez spent her childhood as the family translator, attending doctor’s appointments with her parents, aunts, uncles, and, grandparents. When her younger brother was struggling with speech problems, Karen had to translate for her mother during IEP meetings. She also had to function as his tutor, since older sister had left home to join the army. And all this was before she was even a teenager.

Through work and determination, she was accepted to the College of William & Mary on a full scholarship and graduated with degrees in psychology and French. When she received acceptance from Northeastern to the school psychology graduate program, she was “completely and utterly afraid.”

“I didn’t have any family or friends in Boston, and as the first in my family to go to college, I didn’t have anyone to give me advice,” she recalls. “I was also nervous about living on my own for the first time. In Hispanic culture, children typically don’t move out of the family home, so it was really hard for my family to understand—and to some extent, it still is now.”


Fortunately, when she arrived in Boston, the Bouvé faculty was supportive and her cohort of students became extremely close. But she credited her ability to grow on the broad professional experience offered by the Northeastern program.

Her first placement was in an elementary school in the suburb of Newton, Massachusetts. Then she moved to the Boston Public Schools, where she worked in an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. She performed at such a high level that the Boston School Department hired her during her final year of grad school as a full-time substitute in the Behavioral Health Department.

One of her most memorable, experiences was one of her first—a fifth grader whose mother was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. It was the first year of the Trump administration, and the mother was terrified that her children would be taken away. So when one kid was sick, they all stayed home.

“As the only girl, my student was expected to take care of her brothers,” said Alvarez. “She was cooking and cleaning, and not really allowed to be a child. These are the kids who drop out. They have no strong connection to the school.”

Since this was the suburbs, there weren’t many Hispanic students or teachers for the girl to bond with.

“She took to me right away,” recalls Alvarez. “We met every week and just talked about life. It was nice to be able to connect with students that others at the school could not.”

The girl’s attendance improved dramatically and she went off to middle school.

“Sometimes what a student needs most is for an adult to believe in them,” she said.

Based on her broad experience with all age groups, Alvarez has concluded that she wants to work with younger students.

“They’re extremely resilient, and with younger students, I can have a greater impact on the habits and behaviors they develop.”


A First-Generation American’s ​Edge as a School Psychologist (