From Puerto Rico to South Alabama
Posted on September 1, 2023 by CEPS Marketing and Communications
Jennifer Palomo-Gregory’s father was a pastor, and many people would go to him for counseling. Observing her father was inspirational. Her mother was devoted to five children and worked as an elementary teacher. Palomo-Gregory also grew up admiring her mother’s work ethic and dedication to nurturing and loving her children.
As a junior at Wesleyan Academy in Guaynado, Puerto Rico, Palomo-Gregory had the opportunity to shadow a children’s clinical psychologist, Dr. Carlos Velazquez.
“I remember walking into his office and coming through the lobby,” she said. “It was so zen, and his office had children’s art. It was a special moment, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I never doubted it.”
That moment of realization put Palomo-Gregory on a path to the University of South Alabama.
She considered a few different colleges. Friends in the U.S. Coast Guard told her about South, so Palomo-Gregory toured campus in Mobile. In 2002, she became a Jaguar.
“It was very different from the island,” she said. “But the more time passed, the more I wanted to stay.”
Palomo-Gregory connected with international students on campus.
“My parents would ask me, ‘where did you get the recipe for that or why do you say things with this accent?’ I housed with Irish people for five years. My best friend was from Argentina, and my previous roommates were from Colombia and Venezuela. It was so rich, culturally. I loved it. It was very diverse, and I feel very fortunate for that experience.”
In order to help her parents pay for tuition, she worked at the USA Marx Library. She was also able to save money to buy her first used car.
Palomo-Gregory earned an undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in sociology at South. She then started the master’s program in community counseling, now known as clinical mental health counseling. While studying in graduate school, she began working as a behavioral specialist for AltaPointe Health in Mobile. She also worked as a graduate assistant and a nanny.
“I was working 80 hours a week in order to live, eat, and make it happen.”
Palomo-Gregory worked with Dr. Tres Stefurak, associate dean for the College of Education and Professional Studies and professor of counseling psychology, as a graduate assistant aiding his research efforts and under his supervision as a counseling intern at the Strickland Youth Center in Mobile, Alabama. She was one of the first students that worked as part of the Mobile Juvenile Court Collaborative, a longstanding research, clinical training and clinical services collaboration between the College of Education and Professional Studies, the Mobile County Juvenile Court and Strickland Youth Center.
“Jennifer continued to work an additional job outside of both roles and took a full load of graduate classes,” Stefurak said. “Despite those commitments, there was no task asked of her that was too small, and her counseling clients’ needs remained a top priority. In every meeting her contributions made her and her colleagues better and her work ethic made her colleagues, and me, more motivated and inspired on a weekly basis. I knew then Jennifer was someone who would be a transformational leader in her career.”
Palomo-Gregory considers Stefurak a mentor to this day.
“I am very fortunate for his guidance and encouragement,” she said.
After earning her master’s degree, Palomo-Gregory accepted a job as a therapist with BayPointe Hospital in Mobile, where she worked with students in the public school system who were experiencing mental health problems. She served as a therapist there for three years before transitioning to the children’s outpatient clinic in Mobile.
Palomo-Gregory then earned the Licensed Professional Counseling credential from the state of Alabama and the National Counselor Certification from the National Board of Certified Counselors. She was promoted as AltaPointe Health’s coordinator for the Children and Adolescent Outpatient Program in Mobile. This allowed her to supervise counseling interns from local universities in Mobile.
“It’s interesting how your life can come full circle,” she said. “The experience I had with collegiate students and supervision allowed me to gain much needed knowledge and experience for where I am today. One of the things I enjoy most about working with students is their eagerness to learn and grow.”
After starting a family and having her first child, she began working part-time in her private practice on Saturdays.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “It gave me insight on what private practice is, what it entails, and the responsibilities.”
However, after her second child, Palomo-Gregory decided to leave private practice and dedicate her time to family. She continued to work at AltaPointe and was able to find a great work-life balance.
In 2018, Palomo-Gregory was promoted to assistant director for access to care at AltaPointe. She managed a team of 30 professionals at Access to Care, AltaPointe’s point of entry, resource center and crisis line. She also managed the 988 team in Mobile to cover crisis calls for 16 counties in Alabama.
“So if you call 988 right now and you have a 251 area code, you're going to get answered by the team that I used to supervise in Mobile,” Palomo-Gregory said. “Playing a part in this project was an honor, and working to improve access to those in need is imperative to the work we do in the mental health field.”
In November 2022, Palomo-Gregory started a new job as director of counseling services at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg.
“That was a huge crossroad in my life,” she said. “I had been in Mobile for 20 years and had just had a baby about a year ago, and things were going great, I was in my comfort zone”
Palomo-Gregory had spent many years building a strong connection within the Mobile community, so leaving this was a big step in her life. However, she took the opportunity as a sign of a positive change.
Her husband is from North Carolina, and she has siblings in South Carolina and North Carolina. She saw this new position as both an opportunity for growth and to be closer to family. Palomo-Gregory has a brother, James Palomo, who is in Mobile and works at the University of South Alabama.
“I’ve got a lot of support back in Mobile,” she said. “After living in Mobile for 20 years, I built a village.”
Now, Palomo-Gregory works with students and colleagues within a university setting in South Carolina.
“This is one of the things that I loved about South Alabama and my journey. It brought me back to my roots and I enjoy it. I really do. When I get those days that are a bit emotionally draining, I just remind myself that this is just the beginning of something new.”
Palomo-Gregory is excited to work in higher education and credits her mentors and experiences at South for how she got to where she is today.
“A lot of people ask me how I got to where I am. And it started early on at the University of South Alabama as a freshman in psychology. I feel blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity.”
Palomo-Gregory is also thankful for her family.
“My parents and I have a great relationship. I’m glad they empowered me to be the woman I am today. It hasn't all been a piece of cake, but I'm very grateful for all those experiences and how, collectively, they've shaped who I am now. Stepping out of my comfort zone is exactly what I did last year, I was very comfortable in a good way. But sometimes, you know, the end of your comfort zone is like a new beginning for new growth and new opportunities. And if we don't take that risk, I think we could miss out.”