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    • Montage of family photos from six students featured in this article

Growing Up in an Immigrant Family

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Six first-year MPH students describe how their childhood experiences shaped their dreams and brought them to the Fielding School.

Chelsea Santos

Headshot - Chelsea Santos
Chelsea Santos

As a first-generation Filipina American, I am the product of two cultures melded into one. The aroma of home-cooked Filipino dishes, holiday parties with singing and dancing, and the constant shift between English and Tagalog made up pieces of the simple but colorful mosaic of my childhood. My parents would frequently share stories of their upbringing – stories marked by stark contrasts between life in the United States and in the Philippines, reminding me of the value of gratitude, grit and empathy.

During my college career at UC Riverside, I went on a medical mission to the Philippines with the nonprofit organization Philos Health. Alongside an American medical team, I helped to carry out a long-term nutrition program for children in the province of Bohol and worked with the medical staff in the local community. I saw the gravity of the need for basic medical equipment, infant and maternal care, and physicians in rural areas, as patients often walked miles from their village to reach our medical stations.

After the trip, I became even more intrigued with the idea of treating the community by addressing social, economic and political determinants of health. I realized that the complex challenge of keeping communities healthy hinges on interdisciplinary collaboration and the power of empathy. My MPH from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health will give me the skills to effectively address health disparities in communities of need and to practice those skills while measuring health outcomes. This is the perfect place to grow as a student and future public health physician.

From their stories, the image of my parents in the United States for the first time, with only two large trash bags in hand, remains most visceral to me. Those trash bags symbolized a new life of freedom from hunger and economic hardship. It is my family’s immigrant experience that drives my passion for preventive medicine, community health and human rights.

“The image of my parents... with only two large trash bags in hand remains most visceral to me. Those trash bags symbolized a new life of freedom from hunger and economic hardship.”

Janani Srikantharajah

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Janani Srikantharajah

My family (ethnically Tamil) was forced to emigrate from Sri Lanka as political refugees when I was barely 3. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Vallejo, Calif., attending schools that consistently performed below state standards and witnessing violence at my doorstep. From an early age, I knew about inequality. I saw it in the neighborhood kids, the liquor stores, the abandoned lots and unemployment that seemed to plague every family on my block. I saw how the neighborhood environment affects health.

There were no South Asian families in Vallejo. My best friends were African American and Filipino. My only exposure to being Tamil was in my home, where the dysfunction between my parents, the regret that they were here and not in Sri Lanka, and their constant financial struggle made me less interested in connecting with my roots than in identifying with the community around me. I loved the friends and neighbors who helped build my identity. They gave me pieces of their cultures. They took care of me when my family could not. I grew up seeing the world not only through my experiences, but also through the eyes of the people of color from the diverse cultures around me.

I could have been the kid who never left the neighborhood, or the child freedom fighter my father always wanted. I am neither. The privilege I possess today, as I pursue my MPH and MD degrees, affords me a future that I couldn’t have dreamed of at times in my past. People ask if I plan to work with refugees. My feeling is that there is much work to be done in our own backyards. I believe public health is the vehicle through which I can contribute to change. I am at the Fielding School to learn about implementing programs and policies to realize social justice.

“From an early age, I knew about inequality. I saw it in the neighborhood kids, the liquor stores, the abandoned lots... I saw how the neighborhood environment affects health.”

Amarachi Okoro

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Amarachi Okoro

My path to public health began with my parents, who immigrated to the United States from their village in Nigeria. They instilled in me the importance of hard work and never forgetting to give back – in their actions as well as their words. A large portion of the little money my parents made went to taking care of family in Nigeria. During our trips there, we would bring necessities such as clothes and toiletries to our extended family. Later in life, I learned that these necessities also included money for tuition and rent.

Although the San Gabriel Valley area where I grew up was considered diverse, as a first-generation Nigerian-American I was in the extreme minority within my community, a reality that only grew more evident as I began taking honors and advanced placement classes. Pursuing a higher education in an environment where people were surprised to see me, or assumed that I would not perform, cultivated feelings of alienation and exclusion. I was often questioned as to why I did not fulfill various stereotypes.

My interest in health had begun at a young age. My family could not always afford childcare, so my mother, a nurse, would take me with her to the hospital or to house visits around east Los Angeles County. As I tagged along, I witnessed the impact health could have on a person – not just physically, but also socially, psychologically and environmentally. I am pursuing an MPH as well as a medical degree because it became evident through these experiences that to achieve my goals, I need to work on a broad scale. Through my education at the Fielding School, I will become a physician able to take the daily interactions I have with individuals in underserved communities – my communities – and become an advocate to help them gain the dignity of good health.

“[My parents] instilled in me the importance of hard work and never forgetting to give back – in their actions as well as their words.”

Andrea Lopez

Headshot - Andrea Lopez
Andrea Lopez

I grew up in the Santa Maria Valley of California, a place known for its tri-tip and strawberries. Like many immigrant parents, mine emphasized hard work, education and a sense of social responsibility. Both came to the United States from Mexico. My father was drawn by the promise of economic opportunity. He was 22 and arrived with a fourth-grade education, but he learned English, earned his GED and has worked in retail management most of his life. My mother was 10 when she joined my grandfather, who was already in Los Angeles and working in the service industry. She graduated from high school, but finances prevented her from continuing her education. My parents are typical Mexican immigrants – hardworking and resilient. It is because of them that I want to use the opportunities I have to serve the public.

My journey to public health began in high school. As a hospital volunteer, I saw immigrant patients who delayed care until their conditions were unbearable. Lack of access due to immigration status or socioeconomics kept them away from preventive services. As an undergraduate, I volunteered at a free clinic and came to realize that access is only the first obstacle. Interpreting for patients, I observed cultural and language barriers. I remember one patient approaching me after her appointment because she didn’t understand her medication instructions but was too intimidated to ask her doctor. I have seen the frustrations of my own mother and grandmothers in trying to manage their diabetes with complex medication regimens and side effects. I have observed the social and economic barriers they face in navigating the health care system.

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health is the next step in my journey. Here I hope to gain the training necessary to conduct community-based, policy-driven research and implement culturally relevant public health initiatives in resource-limited settings.

“Like many immigrant parents, mine emphasized hard work, education and a sense of social responsibility.”

Naada Azeemuddin

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Naada Azeemuddin

Working as a mentor for high school students in Watts and downtown Los Angeles throughout my undergraduate career as part of UCLA’s Mentors for Academic and Peer Support program, I have come to realize many struggles facing underserved communities, both in education and health care. Not only were my students’ academic aspirations stunted by social stereotypes and irrational societal expectations, but I also began to notice the negative effects socioeconomic factors had on their health.

In Watts, every student I met had experienced the premature death of someone close to them. Many struggled with health issues such as obesity and depression, yet they hadn’t seen a primary care physician in years – and in some cases the only time they could recall consulting with a doctor was in an emergency room. Many of these students were from low-income immigrant families. Some of them were undocumented, and fearful of their peers learning the secret they had been hiding for years.

As a child of Indian immigrants who has been without reliable access to medical care for the majority of my life, I understood their situation. But I never fully appreciated the consequences of lacking access until my mom came down with a severe eye infection. I was horrified by the number of clinics that denied her service or refused to perform medical testing because she was uninsured, leaving her condition undiagnosed for months.

With my MPH from the Fielding School, I want to make health care, and particularly preventive care, more accessible to underserved communities such as the one I came to know in Watts and the low-income immigrant communities like mine. My education has always been a priority to my parents, who overworked themselves to provide me with this privilege. Getting accepted into such a prestigious public health program as the Fielding School is a tremendous opportunity. I intend to make the most of it.

“With my MPH, I want to make health care, and particularly preventive care, more accessible to underserved communities such as the one I came to know in Watts and the low-income immigrant communities like mine.”

Marisol Torres

Headshot - Marisol Torres
Marisol Torres

When I was in third grade I found myself, for the first time, in a school where the only language spoken was English.

“Write a sentence,” my teacher instructed, after distributing a vocabulary list.

“A sentence?” I asked myself in Spanish. “¿Que es... sentence?”

My family had come to the United States from Mexico with little money and no knowledge of English. As a child learning the language, I had to speak on my parents’ behalf to salespeople, teachers, government employees and even doctors. My family’s health decisions often depended on how well my siblings and I were able to translate, how well we understood the complicated systems, and how well we were able to stand up for ourselves. I wasn’t the best at it, but we had no choice.

It was hard not to draw a connection between the hardships we experienced as immigrants and the patterns I began noticing within my own family and in other low-income Latino families around me – teenage pregnancies, alcohol and drug abuse, and high school dropout rates, to name a few.

By the time I was in sixth grade, my teacher was asking me to join the advanced students in my class. I couldn’t believe it – a girl whose parents didn’t know English, whose mom hadn’t made it to middle school. I went on to become the first in my family to go to college, and now I am at the Fielding School – known for its diverse student population and development of future leaders.

I am excited about courses emphasizing the human rights and cultural aspects of health issues, as well as the need for accessible services and more culturally competent professionals. My experience as a Spanish-speaking Latina immigrant from a low-income family uniquely positions me to challenge the systems that create health disparities. The Fielding School is the ideal place to be continuing that journey.

“My experience as a Spanish-speaking Latina immigrant from a low-income family uniquely positions me to challenge the systems that create health disparities.”