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FSPH students recall the experiences that taught them the impact social, economic, and environmental factors can have on health, and led them to the Fielding School.
AS THE DAUGHTER OF MEXICAN PARENTS from small farm towns in the state of Jalisco, I grew up living and witnessing the struggles and inequalities in health that many immigrant families face when they move to a new country with different customs, language, and values. It is this background and a constellation of other life events that led me to the field of public health and augmented my commitment to conducting research focused on social determinants of health.
As a child I helped my mother clean houses in Manhattan Beach, California. Even before I knew the definition of “health disparities,” it was clear to me that people in this affluent beach city had more opportunities than others. My mother’s employers had better access to resources such as healthy food, good schools, and ample open space for recreational activities than my family did.
These disparities persist today. For example, although my hometown of Lawndale is only about four miles away from Manhattan Beach, where my mom continues to work as a housekeeper, it has significantly higher childhood obesity rates. This, along with my personal struggles with obesity as a child — and painfully observing members of my family share similar struggles — instilled my passion about obesity prevention research. My life experiences have fueled my desire to pursue a career that will allow me to address the upstream factors that perpetuate a disproportionate burden of chronic disease on certain populations — for the betterment of my family, my community, and society.
PUBLIC HEALTH WAS NOT MY ORIGINAL CAREER CHOICE. My childhood dream was to become a medical doctor and work in the health center of my hometown, a rural village in southwest China. Doctors in that health center are my heroes although they failed to save my father from hepatitis, my grandfather from pneumonia, and my young neighbor from drowning in a pond. Still, I was determined to study hard and become a better doctor so that I could cure everybody.
During my one-year residency in hospitals, however, I came across many patients who suffered from illnesses that could have been easily prevented or detected at an earlier stage. By the time these patients entered the health care system, it was either too late or too expensive to treat them. It saddened me to see my patients, mostly from places like my hometown, come to the city hospitals to receive a diagnosis and then lose hope of recovery because they were diagnosed too late, or did not have the financial resources to pay for treatment. What if they could have afforded to see a doctor earlier? What if everybody had been vaccinated against hepatitis? What if the small pond in my hometown had a fence to protect children from falling into it?
I realized that diseases and death are caused not just by germs, but also by fundamental societal problems such as poverty, lack of access to health care, and unsafe environments. To keep people healthy, we need not only medical doctors but also public health professionals who can make a real difference in communities like my hometown.
WHEN I WAS 3, I WAS UNABLE TO TALK. Luckily, my public day care program referred me to speech therapy to fully develop my communication skills. My mother worked in education; she was a single parent, but she knew caring for her children and providing the best opportunities were vital. She advocated on my behalf to take the most advanced courses my high school offered, and as a result I was admitted to UC Berkeley as the first person in my immediate family to attend and graduate from college.
I grew up in a food desert in Oakland, down the street from three fast-food restaurants and two convenience stores within a three-block radius. We did not have a car, so the grocery store was a 20-25 minute walk or a bus ride that required a 30-minute wait in each direction. This made for a larger food desert than for someone with a car or accessible public transportation. Most of my family struggles with obesity; the concept of the built environment and its impact on the health of the community was part of our lives — we just didn’t have a name for it. I learned about this idea at one of the Environmental Health panels during National Public Health Week in my first year of grad school. The speakers were talking about Los Angeles, but I could relate it to the community where I grew up. After graduating, I plan to address health inequities by working in the community health clinic system and possibly running for public office.
I WAS BORN AND RAISED IN SOUTH OKLAHOMA CITY, a part of Oklahoma’s capital known by many for low-income neighborhoods, unsupported public schools, and an abundance of unhealthy food options. But South OKC is home for me, and a place of rich social and cultural traditions bound together by community. In fact, it wasn’t until I left that I realized the egregious inequality that creates neighborhoods like the one I grew up in.
My mom worked long and odd hours in retail, and my dad spent most of his life working in greenhouses to provide for me. Growing up, I thought all families were forced to decide whether to pay a doctor’s bill or put food on the table. Because I came from such a tight-knit community where most people were struggling to make ends meet, I never noticed how people from the affluent parts of town would turn their noses up at the mention of our neighborhood — where it was normal for girls to become pregnant as teens due to the lack of education and resources, and where many were unable to access the health care they needed.
I come to public health in the name of social justice, of advocacy. I want people to be empowered with the resources to make healthy decisions. If that means a 16-year old needs to access safe contraceptive options, I am going to fight for that. I am going to advocate for those who are unable to navigate our health system. I plan to use my education and training to fight for health for all.
I WAS BORN IN EAST LOS ANGELES TO IMMIGRANT PARENTS who had very few resources and less than a high school education. My father passed away when I was 5 due to complications from AIDS and my mother passed of the same when I was 9. Even before her passing there was not much stability at home, but from her death I experienced more loss. I moved to a different state and was separated from my siblings for six years. When I was 13, someone else close to me died of complications from AIDS.
As a teenager, I participated in educational panels advocating safe sex and communicating the dangers of sharing needles in high schools throughout Arizona and in New Mexico. It was tough to speak about the loss that I had experienced, but I was empowered by trying to help others. After starting my first year in the MPH program at the Fielding School, I learned about the social determinants of health and the impact of external factors. I was reminded that public health is so important and it reinforced my decision to pursue a career in this profession.
Education has been the avenue for my success. My life has taught me there is much to be learned from helping others. These experiences have embedded a strong sense of community within me, as well as a yearning to serve other communities — which is what I plan to do once I graduate.
MY INTEREST IN PUBLIC HEALTH CAME FROM AN AMORPHOUS CHILDHOOD DESIRE for a future career helping others. This likely stemmed from having been raised in a lowincome community where I witnessed the effects of structural inequalities, such as my friends not having enough to eat due to their parents’ lack of employment opportunities, and my classmates having to quit school to work.
My interest in public health became concrete during my enrollment in the AmeriCorps national service program. I was placed in an East Los Angeles nonprofit medical organization that served a predominantly Latino population. One of my favorite aspects of being in the organization was that each week brought multiple opportunities for direct service in our neighborhoods during health-related events. At an outreach activity outside of our clinic at one of these events, I persuaded an elderly woman to come inside to get a free H1N1 vaccination. After receiving the vaccination, she ended up making multiple return trips with different people from her neighborhood so that they could also get vaccinated. Through this encounter I started to see the importance of bringing services directly to the community and the utilization of social ties. I would have numerous such encounters, and they would underscore for me that my career path would involve helping others through public health. I hope to put my Fielding School education toward program implementation, specifically involving LGBTQ youth and mental health.
DESPITE ENTERING THE UNITED STATES LAWFULLY AND “DOING EVERYTHING RIGHT,” I became one of the millions who fell through the cracks of the immigration system. “You don’t have papers. You can’t access x, or become y” were formulaic responses I heard, but I remained determined to find a way to overcome such institutional barriers.
I entered college in 2010 at the height of the immigrant youth movement, tirelessly seeking support only to hear responses like, “You can’t access this. There’s nothing for you here.” Absent of support, I founded We B.U.I.L.D. (Bringing Unity to Immigrants, and Life to their Dreams), a campus-based support and advocacy group for undocumented youth and their families, where I began my journey as an advocate for my community.
I also started to notice the deep impact policies had on my life and on my community. Close friends faced health complications and difficulty accessing health care services because they were undocumented. I knew I needed to learn more about the root causes of their issues and address their needs. That is why I chose UCLA. I am pursuing my graduate education, for my loved ones, as the first undocumented student (to my knowledge) in the three-year, Dual Master’s Program in Public Health and Public Policy at UCLA. For the past three years, I have immersed myself in the diverse disciplines FSPH has to offer, developing the intersectional and interdisciplinary scope this field requires of me.
Simultaneous to educational pursuit, I have served as a policy analyst/advocate – contributing to the fruition of the first-ever comprehensive workplace violence prevention program for health care workers implemented by the state worker protection and safety organization Cal/OSHA; working toward the passage of SB 1139 so that undocumented students in California can access funding to invest in their education as future health care providers; and promoting built environment and transportation systems that enhance safety and health conditions for my communities. I intend to continue breaking barriers in life, not just for me but for others like me.
THE EXPERIENCES THAT LED UP TO MY PLACEMENT IN THE CALIFORNIA FOSTER CARE SYSTEM have driven my sensitivity to and understanding of how social conditions impact health status. These experiences have also led to my desire to take on a leadership role addressing challenging environmental dilemmas that are affecting human health. Navigating the foster care system, you are constantly reminded of the way in which adverse socioeconomic conditions lead to the destruction of families. Children enter a system where they are supposed to receive support, but the reality is that these children are rarely provided with sufficient resources to pursue a college education. Only 3 percent of foster youth obtain college degrees.
Instead of letting statistics on the outcomes of foster youth discourage me, I was left passionate about gaining the education necessary to overcome my disadvantages and create positive change. I pushed forward and pursued health advocacy internships in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, where I found myself staring into the eyes of families devastated by pollution-created illnesses. My experiences left me motivated to pursue graduate studies where I could learn toxicology, epidemiology, community health sciences, and risk assessment. Now, I am pursuing my MPH in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Fielding School, where I am learning to evaluate the health risks posed by environmental problems, as well as how to develop policies and programs that manage these environmental health risks. Upon graduation, I see myself becoming a leader for environmental risk management and environmental justice campaigns as the U.S. enters a new age of modernization and development.