A Warrior for Healing

Trained as a teacher, Vanessa Villafañe Gregory ’73 helps others learn skills to survive trauma

By Alejandra Rosa

Illustration by Lisbeth Checo

Five days after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, in September 2017, while millions of the island’s residents were home with their families, psychologist Vanessa Villafañe Gregory ’73 was at the U.S. Army Garrison Fort Buchanan, near San Juan, providing counseling services to dozens of soldiers, engineers, and civilian employees who were helping with the recovery.

With much of the island in disarray, she conducted her sessions “all over the place — in the office, in the cafeteria, I would go out with people. We did outreach to where the soldiers were.” Helping first-responders and others was “was tough,” Villafañe Gregory admits. The Commonwealth’s electric grid had been almost entirely knocked out by the storm, she notes. “I would come back [home] to darkness.” 

Still, becoming a psychologist who focuses on strengthening people so they can recover from trauma, and so they can help others do so, too, is “the best choice I’ve ever made in my life,” says Villafañe Gregory, who frequently attends the College’s annual Reunion. “I love it,” she says of her career. “I’ll never retire.” 

At Fort Buchanan and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, she serves as a fulltime therapist. “I work with military members and their families. I give them techniques so they can have a more healthy reintegration” into civilian life, she explains. She also volunteers with the American Red Cross, to support people coping with disasters. “I want to help people tap into their resilience,” she says. 

Psychology has always been Villafañe Gregory’s first love. But it was her second or third career, depending on how you count things. At Barnard, “I wanted to study psychology, but what happened?” she ponders. Classes in the department at the time focused not on counseling psychology but on a more behavioral approach. “I said, ‘This is not psychology.’ ” Instead, she studied American history and education and, after graduation, taught English and Spanish to first graders in the New York City public school system while pursuing a master’s in teaching from Teachers College and, eventually, a Ph.D. in administration and supervision from Fordham’s Graduate School of Education.

In 1981, the University of Puerto Rico hired her as a professor of business administration. A couple of years later, she became the director of the administration and supervision department in the School of Education at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. 

Despite her professional successes,  “The question always [of why I wasn’t practicing psychology] would come in. So, in 1985, when I’m directing the department of administration and supervision, I decide to go back [and start] from zero in psychology,” she says. In 1989, she earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology and, after clinical training, became a licensed psychologist in 1992. (She also holds a certificate in gerontology and a master’s in public health and is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified mediator.) Since committing to psychology, she has not looked back. “No regrets,” she says. 

Her work counseling members of the military connects her to deep parts of her identity: her childhood as a military brat and her years at Barnard, when her father, a career soldier, fought in Vietnam. “It was a challenging time,” Villafañe Gregory recalls about her life on campus. “I was living in the dorms, and there was an antiwar movement” — a strong antiwar movement; Villafañe Gregory wasn’t part of it. “It was very lonely for me. I was like a salmon swimming against the tide,” she remembers. “I found solace in the library.” 

Though Villafañe Gregory says she came to Barnard to get an education, not a social life, books were not her only supports. Education professor Katherine Wilcox “was like a second mother to me,” she notes. “And Dr. Grace King, who taught chemistry, took me under her wing.” Then there were the workers in the cafeteria. “They were Puerto Rican, and they knew all the Puerto Rican students. There were very few of us,” she says, choking up at the memory. “They were awed by us being there. They looked out for us. It was an act of kindness.” 

Despite the challenges of her four years on campus, Villafañe Gregory loves Barnard and promotes it every chance she gets, often encouraging the talented high school students she meets to apply. “I feel like every year I come back [for Reunion] is like coming back home. I look forward to what’s new on campus. I look forward to talking to the young students and learning what their dreams are.” She also looks forward to time with her fellow alumnae. “They tend to be very outspoken, nontraditional. It’s nice to see women as quirky as me!” Plus, there’s her pilgrimage to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue for some cherry strudel. “Reunion is a nice break from the intense work I do in Puerto Rico,” she says. 

Much of what Villafañe Gregory learned as an undergraduate continues to serve her, both in her profession and in her pursuit of a master’s degree in comparative literature, an effort she’s wrapping up this winter. Her master’s thesis focuses on the representation of trauma in literature from the post-World War II era, specifically the work of French writer Marguerite Duras and that of the anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin (later revealed to be journalist Marta Hillers), who describes her own rape, and that of many other women, at the hands of Soviet soldiers at the end of World War II. The question of how one tells the story of horrific events “very much informs the work I do,” Villafañe Gregory says. “How do people understand their story of trauma? Can they make sense of it in a way that helps them heal?” 

Those are questions that continue to animate her all these years after she first sought to pursue a psychology degree at Barnard. “There’s a lot of walking wounded around,” Villafañe Gregory says, “and if there’s any way I that can relieve their suffering, I think that is my calling.” 

Alejandra Rosa is a writer based in Puerto Rico, working on post-Hurricane Maria representations.

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