Dr. Eluterio Blanco, Jr. grew up in a Mexican American community in South Texas by the Rio Grande border. He didn’t foresee his career leading to where he is now, a clinical assistant professor and addiction studies coordinator at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. When he enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin, as a first-generation student on scholarship, he planned to major in engineering. He quickly discovered he was good at the math involved, but it bored him.
But “psychology was completely foreign to me,” he says. “I thought this is challenging. This is what I wanted to do.”
When he graduated, psychology degree in hand, Blanco decided he was done with school. He decided to continue his passion for psychology with only a bachelor’s degree by getting his license as an addiction counselor.
While it was partly a way to avoid graduate education — or so he thought — there was also a personal drive behind helping people with addictions. He saw substance use in his community, and he wanted to help.
“Early on, I caught on to the need for services, the need for treatment, the need for counseling,” he says. “Substance abuse was something I was always around – family, friends, just people that I knew – at least for alcohol use and maybe some other substances … I felt like it was just something very natural, not to confront it, but to really just listen, to just guide people through some kind of resolution for this disorder.”
Blanco went on to get his master’s degree in clinical psychology and his Ph.D. in rehabilitation counseling. (He now tells his students to never rule out a graduate degree.) As a researcher, he focuses on Latinx health practitioners’ attitudes toward addiction and how to reduce stigma. He just submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to train local health care providers in treating alcohol and drug use.
In the surrounding area, much of the Latinx community lacks health insurance or easy access to medical care, so people can find themselves in local clinics with doctors who carry biases, like believing people with an addiction are “lacking in some kind of morality” versus struggling with a public health problem, Blanco says.
He finds that it helps to inform doctors about the medical aspect of addiction and arm them with treatment options.
“It’s all about education,” he says. “It’s about educating not just patients but providers as well … because [addiction] is heavily stigmatized in our community. At least in the Mexican American community, people are not completely buying into the notion that addiction is treatable.”
It can be hard to retrain people. But he’s sustained by “the hope that it helps clients, it’ll help people want to seek out and get more substance use care, and the influence that’ll have on the community,” he added. “We can hopefully create some kind of a paradigm shift where people in the community will want to go out and get help and talk about their substance use rather than how it is now, where it’s something that’s kept very secretive and not discussed at all.”
In addition to his work with Latinx doctors, Blanco is also training future addiction specialists like himself. Two years ago, he launched The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s bachelor’s degree program in addiction studies, an online program meant to educate future clinicians across the state — and potentially across the country. It’s now in the process of earning accreditation.
Dr. Bruce Reed, Blanco’s mentor, praised his commitment and content expertise as the program’s coordinator, calling him a clinician and scholar whose “career is on the rise.” Reed is the director of the School of Rehabilitation Counseling & Services at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
For one thing, Blanco is “a very enjoyable, positive person,” he says, “a fun person to be around.”
But also, “at the core of it, we’re training the next generation of professionals to help in our communities,” Reed added. “And to me, it’s very important to have the right values, and [Blanco] brings that. He brings a passion and an empathy and imparts that on our students.”
Eluterio Blanco, Jr.
Title: Clinical Assistant Professor and Addiction Studies Coordinator, School of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Education: B.S. psychology, The University of Texas at Austin; M.S., clinical psychology, The University of Texas-Pan American; Ph.D., rehabilitation counseling, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Mentors: Dr. Bruce Reed, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: “Always to approach their chair with ideas. Don’t wait for ideas to come to you. Always bring ideas forward. And if for whatever reason those ideas are not supported or rejected, have backups to that. Anticipate that.”
This article originally appeared in the January 21, 2021 edition of Diverse and is one in a series of profiles about this year’s 2021 Emerging Scholars. Read about all of them here.