Motivating Latinos, others, to consider careers in public health

June 18, 2012 — Listening to Ernesto Mejia talk about his background—growing up as the son of immigrants, dropping out of college, eventually becoming a college dean, then a motivational speaker—the students at East Boston High were mesmerized.

Mejia’s May 30, 2012 speech—delivered in Spanish to nearly 100 mostly high-schoolers, most of whom were studying English as a second language—was aimed at motivating the students to focus on education and careers. The event was made possible through the efforts of several Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) employees who want to convince more Latinos and other underrepresented groups to focus on higher education and consider careers in public health or related fields. They also want to create connections between HSPH and surrounding communities.

“Our goal is to start reaching into high schools to boost students’ interest in higher education, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields, and maybe public health in particular,” said Dale Trevino, director of diversity programs at HSPH, who organized the East Boston High event along with Edward Martinez, associate director of finance in the Department of Genetics and Complex Diseases at HSPH, and Deborah Valdovinos of the history of science department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard.

Mejia’s talk was sponsored by the Chicago-based United States Hispanic Leadership Conference (USHLI), with which Trevino is very involved, and which has been sending motivational speakers to other parts of the country through its Student Leadership Series. Mejia’s talk was the first of this kind in the Boston area.

National ties, local effort

Trevino, Martinez, and a handful of other staff members and students from HSPH and Harvard at large participated in the annual USHLI National Conference in Chicago in February. One of the conference panels, on Latino health, featured alumni, students, and staff from HSPH. Speaker Fatima Rodriguez, MPH ’10, drew much interest from students and parents who were inspired by the story of her career trajectory as a Latina, Trevino said.

After seeing the enthusiastic response in Chicago, Trevino, Martinez, and Valdovinos, with support from Michael Grusby, HSPH senior associate dean for academic affairs and diversity, decided to bring one of USHLI’s motivational speakers to Boston.

In the future, said Trevino and Martinez, they hope to organize talks like Mejia’s for students in Massachusetts communities with high minority populations such as Revere, Chelsea, Lowell, and Lawrence. Said Trevino, “It’s a unique and wonderful leadership event, and a real feather-in-the-cap for the School in terms of connecting with the community.”

Recent graduate Ayae Yamamoto, MPH ’12, attended the Chicago conference and also organized a program during her time at HSPH that brought graduate students to local high schools to serve as mentors. “It’s very important for high school students to be able to relate to leaders who came from communities similar to theirs, to help motivate them to become leaders in public health,” she said.

–Karen Feldscher