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Newest GSS Faculty Member Dr. Jemel Aguilar Discusses Growing Up in the Bronx, Public Health Communication, and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome


Fordham GSS is proud to welcome our newest full-time faculty member, Dr. Jemel Aguilar!

Dr. Aguilar completed his doctoral and master’s degrees in social work at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, focusing on advanced generalist social work practice with children and families to build upon his long history in HIV services. Dr. Aguilar’s training in HIV for many years and his HIV service history fueled an approach and academic interest in health promotion among low-income and poor populations and those with marginalized identities and social locations. 

Dr. Aguilar also completed a Master’s in Public Health to complement his social work training. Over the years of his academic service, Dr. Aguilar has conducted research in these areas that have been published in prominent social work journals such as Culture, Health, and Sexuality; Social Work in Mental Health; Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment; and Journal of Community Practice. Dr. Aguilar is the author of Decolonizing Human Behavior in the Social Environment: A reader for an anti-oppressive approach and is currently editing a Human Behavior in the Social Environment textbook that focuses on multiple marginalized identities throughout the lifespan. 

We sat down with Dr. Aguilar to discuss his passion for social work, global health communication gaps during the COVID-19 pandemic, and coming to Fordham after growing up in the Bronx.

When did you decide you wanted to be a social worker, and what was the motivation for choosing that field?

I grew up around the time of the AIDS epidemic, and so my people in the Bronx were trying to figure out how to deal with not only HIV, but also the crack epidemic at the same time. I got involved with a group of people who were helping neighbors. So, I had people in my building above and below who needed things like groceries, so we’d go get groceries; and they needed help with house cleaning. That ended up growing into some of the AIDS service organizations that we see now.

I was working with a lot of people who had social work degrees or public health degrees. I’d finished my bachelor’s degree and decided that I needed to go for my masters, because I was at the top of where I could go with my bachelor’s degree. I also had decided that I needed to leave New York for a little while, to just get a different perspective. So, I went to Minnesota during the summer and said Oh well, the winter can’t be that bad. The first day I was there, it was 16 below with wind chill. 

I got accepted into the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’s MSW program, and I really enjoyed it. Later, I went back for my public health degree, because I think if we address people’s health, other things will improve. 

What sorts of gaps did the MPH degree fill that the MSW maybe didn’t hit?

Social workers are really good at intervention and jumping into a problem, whether it’s dealing with a clinical intervention — so the one-on-one direct practice, trying to figure out what’s going on with family or a person and making some change — or the policy intervention, heading off a problem or addressing a problem. 

Public health is a little different in that it looks at health promotion. So it takes this idea of, we’re going to do an intervention, but we’re going to do an intervention to make things better, regardless of where you are, not necessarily, for lack of a better word, go for a cure. Also, in public health, you’re looking at large groups of people versus the individual. So how do we make things better for all of the United States or all of New York or all of the people in the Bronx, versus this one family that’s dealing with this one problem. 

For me, looking at the individual and looking at policy was good, because it gave me an understanding of how to work in those arenas. But then going into public health and thinking about how to make things change on a broader scale and really promote health gets you to consider things like prevention, and avoiding problems before they come down the line, which is a little different than prevention. 

What do you think are some of the inefficiencies in global health communication, and what do you think are some of the steps we need to take to make that better?

I found it interesting that, especially in the early days of the pandemic, people were saying, this is unprecedented. That’s not true. We’ve had multiple pandemics. But the U.S. and North America, in some ways, have been isolated from pandemics in a way that’s not similar in European and Asian countries. So we’ve had H1N1, we’ve had HIV — pandemics during our time, you know, over the last 30 years. 

What I think people assume, in my opinion, is that health and illness has geographic boundaries. And what COVID and all of its variants continually show us time and time again is that’s not the case. A virus or a bacteria doesn’t care if you work in New York City and live in Massachusetts. This is about messaging to people that healthcare doesn’t have boundaries. So the fact that I get certain health services in New York versus in Connecticut versus in New Jersey is not actually how things work. And we were getting this lesson over and over again now, with COVID then monkeypox and there’s going to be other things down the road. 

The same goes for international boundaries. We need to be in tune with what’s going on with the World Health Organization, because it’s going to affect us. The last thing is, I think we need to do a better job in early education to get people to understand what health is and what it’s not. Some of the misinformation and disinformation around COVID is, to me, indicative of the fact that people don’t know how the body works. And they also don’t know how illness and illness prevention works. So, they’re saying things that they think are right, because to them, it makes logical sense, but I find myself saying, that’s not how that works; that’s not a thing. 

So, you are from the Bronx originally. How big of an impact did growing up in the Bronx have on you as a person? 

Growing up in the Bronx, I thought well, everyone goes to the Statue of Liberty it’s just right there; everyone sees the Empire State Building, it’s just right there — and it wasn’t until I left and went to Minnesota and realize oh, when you study government you don’t go to D.C. I’ve seen the Empire State Building 700 times, and it was a mind-shift to realize that people don’t just have that every day. 

Growing up in New York City and having access to that, I had this whole world that I realized a lot of people aren’t exposed to. I remember hearing lots of different languages, and so  it’s just normal. When I was in Minnesota and hearing everyone speak English all the time, it was very different. 

What caused your desire to teach, and what’s the most rewarding thing about making the transition from “the field” into academia?

I didn’t grow up with people who went to college and graduated with Master’s degrees, so I didn’t know what that world was like, and all I saw was what the professor’s did — they come in, they teach a class. They may be working with you on a project, but I didn’t know what was kind of behind that veil. They would tell me they would do all this stuff, but it didn’t register what it means to have a research agenda, to publish things, to have these talks. When I went into my first job talk, I was talking about the ideas that I had, and I saw the light bulbs go on. I was looking at something from a different way, and people were actually getting something from my ideas. That was when I thought, Oh, I do want to do this.  

Being a practitioner, you’re creating change — whether it’s policy or individual practice, your focus is on getting people to change. And if you’re working with individuals or families, that’s one person or one family, but here I am in front of a group of 40 people, and I’m getting them to change. It’s a bit addictive. 

Sometimes, in education, we do a really good job of removing the joy that has led people to join something. And so, getting to put that back in, and getting people to trust themselves in their instincts is what keeps me in this game. I was talking to a student yesterday, and she was talking about a paper that she’s writing. She was telling me what she thought were the problems with the paper, and what I said to her is, I think the problem is you’re not trusting yourself. You know what you’re talking about here, and you know what the problem is — you think somebody else is smarter than you, but what you’re saying  makes a lot of sense. Having her turn that corner is what keeps me doing this.

It sounds like that student was experiencing some impostor syndrome. As someone who grew up with people who didn’t have master’s degrees or PhDs, did you ever feel that, or do you ever feel that in your career now? And if you do, what sorts of things do you do on a daily basis to help you face that feeling?

There are times where I feel it. I’ll go into a situation and think, I have no idea what I’m talking about; why would they listen to me and think this is a good idea? So, what I end up doing is I become like I’m an actor, and this is the role that I’m playing. It’s gotten me through a lot of really difficult situations where the difficulty is what ‘s in my head, not actually the situation. 

The other thing is I don’t necessarily give time to people who are invested in putting me down. I think part of what happens is I think everyone feels impostor syndrome at some point, but there are some people who want to enhance that feeling in you, and I worked to identify those people and remove myself from that situation. They don’t deserve that time. 

What made you want to come back to NYC and teach at Fordham GSS?

There are a couple things that really struck me about Fordham. First is how the University talks about research as a social change activity. That’s unique. A lot of people talk about research as an academic activity, and it can be, but the idea that research can be a social change and social justice activity is why I do the work that I do. I look at health because I am trying to change how people live, so they can live better. 

The other thing is that there is this understanding of being “of service,” which a lot of universities talk about, but from what I’ve seen, at Fordham, it’s implemented. I was talking to my sister on the phone and I told her I accepted a job at Fordham, and then my other cousin texted me to say congratulations. That was the level of excitement because I’ve been away from them in different ways for many years, and now I’m literally back in the neighborhood.

What are you currently working on that you’re particularly excited about? And looking forward, what about the social work profession excites you for the upcoming decade?

When I was going through social work school, I took these classes where we were talking about human development. And there were these 300-page books, and people who looked like me and had my experiences were regulated to either a paragraph in each chapter or one chapter. It’s as if our whole experience can be summed up in 30 pages. And so, as I was teaching these courses, I was trying to figure out a way to change that, and so then finally it dawned on me, why don’t you write a textbook?

And so my co-editor and I pulled together a bunch of people who have these marginalized identities, to talk about human development across the lifespan from the multiple ways that we live — so being a person of color, being a man, being in academia and coming from a working class background. So that’s the whole theme of the book, we’re looking from birth to death or, as I like to say, womb to tomb, and what does it mean to have all these multiple identities, and how does that shape your developmental experience? 

And part of that feeds into this other piece that I’m working on right now about the misinformation and disinformation about COVID. It is so pronounced, and it’s not like this is the first time we’ve experienced misinformation about a phenomenon. I would like social work to learn how to engage in messaging around these things, because it’s really hurting the populations that are most vulnerable. 

If we can learn to use health communications as an intervention to address this, I think we’ll be doing another service to vulnerable populations. It’s a way of addressing the separations and divisions that are going on, because people aren’t getting accurate information, and they are not able to differentiate between accurate and accurate information. So, people are looking at Tik Tok and saying, I saw this, and this person says that they are a doctor, but that doesn’t mean they actually have the detailed knowledge that they need to make a judgment about this. It’s the same with YouTube, Facebook, and all the social media platforms. 

How do you even compete with something like Tik Tok, which is literally designed to keep people’s eyes on it?

I think we need to be a part of it and change it from the inside. So that’s where the messaging comes in, because that’s part of messaging. If we’re making YouTube videos, if we’re using Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok as intervention platforms, we’re part of the mix.

As an instructor, students are saying, well on this platform I saw this, and we will pull up the video in the classroom and I’ll say, okay let’s go through this and see what they say — breaking it down, looking at their messaging.

If you could go back in time and speak to yourself at the beginning of your social work career, what kind of advice would you give yourself?

I think I’d tell myself that it’s going to be tough, but it will be worth it. When I was being trained as a social worker, it’s only two years but the world changed dramatically in that time. And so what I learned very quickly was that I had to re-skill, two years after starting an MSW program. 

At the time, I didn’t realize that every year I had to re-skill. I would have told myself it’s going to be tough but it’s worth it — because now, I do things I would never even thought of when I graduated. 

What’s the number one thing a social worker interested in working within the health field should know?

Start off in the more general area of health and then go into a specialized area. I deal with health and I deal with chronic disease. So people who have diabetes, people who have CFS, people who have long-COVID. In order to work with that population, I have to know about medications. I have to know about the different specialties. Because people will say, oh I’m going to an electro cardiologist, and I have to know that’s a cardiologist who deals with the electrical conduction of the heart, and there’s a set of medications that go with that which actually relate to mental health.

And so, someone might be taking something to lower their blood pressure and they may present as more tired, which, if I didn’t know, I might assume as depression. So, having the generalist focus and dealing with broad things will end up helping you learn many skills, so that when you go into something like transportation or oncology, you’ll be able to help with all of the things that are coming together in that environment. 

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

Movies! Movies, movies, movies.

Favorite movie?

Train to Busan.

What’s the most New York City thing you’ve done since being back, and what NYC thing haven’t you done yet that you’re excited to do?

So what I haven’t done yet is go to Arthur Avenue and get bread at the bakery. 

And the most New York City thing I’ve done is when I was growing up, there was this pizzeria that was down the block and I left my house and went out and got a slice of pizza and just sat in that place that I used to go to as a kid.

What’s one book everyone should read?

The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell. 

What’s one question you wish people would ask you?

The story behind my name. [I won’t give this one away; you will have to ask him for yourself!]

You can make your dream playlist, but only have three songs. What songs would you pick?

Nina Simone, “This Is How I Feel.” 

Nina Simone, “I Loves You, Porgy.”

Bjork, “Gloomy Sunday”


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