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They’re Eagles of One Feather

CSON sophomore and her father, thousands of miles apart, still feel connected through BC

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Graduate School of Social Work doctoral student Alfonso Alvarez is serving in Afghanistan, while daughter Luisa studies at the Connell School of Nursing. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Dec. 1, 2011

Alfonso and Luisa Alvarez share a connection that is rare for most fathers and daughters: They’re both enrolled as students in the same university.

But the familial and collegial bonds between Alfonso, a Graduate School of Social Work doctoral student, and Luisa, a Connell School of Nursing junior, have been put to the test this year.

In March, Alfonso — who also holds master’s degrees from GSSW and the Lynch School of Education — and his US Army unit shipped out to Afghanistan. A captain in the Army Medical Service Corps, Alfonso works as a behavioral health officer (BHO) in a combat brigade of about 4,200 soldiers that is currently stationed in the Kandahar Province.

This meant Alfonso had to miss out this year on Thanksgiving with Luisa, his wife Maria and their younger daughter, Victoria, as well as other relatives. But last week the Needham, Mass., family got a king-sized helping of good news: Alfonso is expected to be home for 10 days during Christmas.

Alfonso’s stint in the military, which will finish up this coming spring, is the latest chapter in what would seem an eventful, rewarding life. Born in Spain, he immigrated to the US in 1988, the same year he married Maria, a Boston native and schoolteacher. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Santa Clara University in California, he took his master’s of education at the Lynch School and taught for a few years.

“While I was teaching, I realized that I spent more time helping the kids and their families than actually getting my lessons together,” recalled Alfonso in a recent e-mail interview. “I decided then to do it full time.”

Receiving his MSW from GSSW in 2001, Alfonso went on to work as a children, adolescents and families specialist for several non-profit agencies and Massachusetts General Hospital, also operating a private practice. He later returned to GSSW to begin pursuing a doctorate.

Then in May of 2009, Alfonso decided to join the Army, and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve as a social worker. He was promoted to captain for active duty service six months later.

“My reasons for joining are many,” he said, “but mostly to give back to the US — my country now.”

As Luisa remembers, her father didn’t spend a lot of time spelling out to the family his reasons for enlisting. “When he was in Spain, he served in the military — it was compulsory. In this case, I think he just felt, ‘This is my country now, so I should do the same.’ He also was interested in working with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Meanwhile, Luisa neared the end of her high school years, and Boston College was an obvious choice for her next destination. She had a good sense of the place from the times Alfonso took her to campus when she was a little girl. More importantly, she knew BC had a well-respected program in nursing, and that was what she wanted to study.

“There are a lot of doctors in my family, and then there’s Dad, a social worker, and Mom, a teacher,” says Luisa, explaining her choice of career. “Nursing fits right in — I like the caring aspect of it.”

Said Alfonso, “Luisa is a very sensitive and caring person. Since she was a baby, she had the ability to make people feel good. I felt really happy when she chose to go to BC. I enjoyed — still do — being part of the BC community and she is doing the same. I really feel proud of her.”  

 “I guess it’s a little weird, us both being at BC, even though he actually hasn’t been here,” says Luisa, with a chuckle. “But it brings us closer together. I talk to him about things going on here, and he understands.”

When Alfonso learned last February that he would be shipping out, Luisa spent five days with him in Fort Drum, NY, where he was stationed — her mother and sister came for a separate visit during their school vacation week. Since arriving in Afghanistan, Alfonso has tried to get on the phone once a day with Maria, and perhaps get a brief word with one or both of the girls, if he can.  

“He doesn’t really like to talk about what’s going on,” says Luisa. She has been trying to educate herself as much as possible about Afghanistan, and has found it a challenging undertaking. “What you see in the media is not 100 percent what’s going on.”

Alfonso’s main duties are to give advice to commanders, conduct evaluations, provide counseling, address traumatic events, develop programs to improve resiliency, and supervise a small group of behavioral health specialists.  “You also have to participate in regular soldier activities,” he added.

His situation is a little different than for most BHOs, Alfonso adds. “My team and I developed a resiliency program that is setting a new standard for quality of care. We work together with regular medical providers as well as providers for combat stress and mild traumatic brain injuries. We teach classes, provide counseling and evaluations, medication evaluations, battlefield circulations (we try to go to the more forward areas to see soldiers there), and any other support we can think of.”

GSSW offered its own support for Alfonso and his fellow soldiers this fall, when Associate Dean for Academic and Student Services Regina O’Grady-LeShane organized a drive to collect books, CDs, DVDs, notebooks, pens and other items to send to the unit; in addition, the school held book and bake sales, raising more than $500 to donate to a book fund for the troops.

“That was very thoughtful of them,” says Luisa, who stopped by the bake sale to show her appreciation. “It really means a lot to know people care.”

If Alfonso’s absence made last week’s annual Thanksgiving gathering a bittersweet experience for Luisa’s family, his return for Christmas will definitely make the holiday season shinier.

“We were thinking about taking a fun trip,” says Luisa, smiling, “but he’ll probably just want to be at home. And that’s fine.”