Julissa Banzon, M.S. ’03

Julissa Portales Banzon found her passion for early intervention unexpectedly — in poor communities in Nicaragua.

After college, she was drawn to study the lives and work of missionaries and volunteers and won a fellowship to study their work in seven countries. At her first sites in Nicaragua, she found herself powerfully influenced by her experience with the missionaries and the families they were serving at a child care center in a region of deep poverty. “What these ‘poorest of the poor’ lacked in material wealth, they more than abundantly shared in love, spirit, determination, faith, generosity, and hard work,” Banzon recalls. “I experienced this abundance from the missionaries, the children and families we served, and the volunteers. They aspired to teach children trust, self-worth, and healthy behaviors so that they would make positive choices in their lives. I learned that offering support to these children and families early on — a form of early intervention — meant investing in the future of Nicaragua, one child, one family at a time.”

Banzon continued working with vulnerable children and families when she returned to the U.S. and became a child protection investigator at the Department of Children and Family Services. “I saw things that you didn’t know children went through. It breaks a part of your heart. Many times I felt that if parents had received support — including education about child development and the challenges parents face — abuse and neglect might have been prevented.” Banzon later went to work as a service coordinator with the Illinois early intervention system, and decided to become a developmental therapist, a path which led her to Erikson for her master’s degree.

More recently, Banzon put the lessons of Nicaragua, Erikson, and years of fieldwork experience to work as a Healthy Steps specialist at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago. Through Healthy Steps, Banzon partnered with pediatric medical residents to assess children from developmental, emotional, and behavioral perspectives — aspects that may not have been a strong part of the doctors’ medical training — and to discuss these issues with parents. “The goal is to model for the doctor how to discuss developmental milestones while supporting and enhancing the parent-child relationship,” she said.

Starting just days after a child’s birth, Banzon formed strong, supportive relationships with parents, highlighting and reinforcing the positive parenting behaviors. She talked with parents about bonding and social emotional development, encouraged reading and talking to their infant, and promoted play, and referred families to community services when needed. “Discovering those ‘teachable moments’ with the families and doctors was magic,” she said.

Banzon said Erikson’s focus on relationships, reflective supervision, and respecting the culture of families prepared her well for this role. “It’s hard to put the Erikson education in a box. There is a magic that happens at Erikson, in terms of the dialogue that happens in classroom, seminar, tutorial. You have consistent opportunities to reflect on who you are and who you are becoming and to grow as a person and as a professional.” Banzon credits both Erikson and its strong alumni network for pointing her to job opportunities after graduation, including her post at Healthy Steps. “Erikson has a national reputation. It opens doors for you. The name Erikson goes so far. Alumni are kindred spirits. They guide and mentor each other. It’s a lifelong gift.”

Maintaining her connections eventually brought her back to Erikson, and today she is manager of the Irving B. Harris online infant specialist program. As a faculty adviser, she remains involved by interviewing candidates for the online program, providing academic support to students, working closely with online instructors and supervising student internships. She also works as a case coordinator with the Office of Refugee Resettlement Case Coordination Program.

Banzon is writing a book about her experiences in Nicaragua and considering a return to the classroom. Formerly an instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago, she loves to teach. “I want to get my Ph.D. and do research and make a contribution to the field,” she said. “My mother taught me to have dreams; in a way Erikson also taught me to dream and what I needed to accomplish that dream. The timeline for this never ends – it just begins as you graduate.”