In April, the Public Health Society (PHS) student organization hosted its first National Public Health Week on campus, in partnership with the American Public Health Association.
UC Merced’s National Public Health Week was designed to enable individuals at the university to learn about health issues and have interactive experiences to understand public health field, said PHS President Rewanshi Kumar.
Organizers said they were delighted by the success of the inaugural effort.
More than 150 people attended events geared toward sexual and reproductive health and rural health. At the 2023 UC Merced Success & Involvement Awards, the PHS won “Organization of the Year” for bringing awareness to public health, creating partnerships across the UC system, and being recognized by the American Public Health Association.
PHS Vice President Namitha Bhat won a leadership award for her work in the group. And Kumar won the Equity, Justice, and Inclusive Excellence Champion Award for exemplary contributions to the campus to elevate equity, justice, and community building both on- and off-campus.
Kumar, Bhat, and fellow PHS members Justin Naidu, Nakaya Frazier, Maria Reza, Christian Valle, and Noemi Montiel-Castro said the experience will serve them well in their future endeavors.
Kumar started at UC Merced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which played a major role in motivating her interest in public health.
“Knowing that there is so much happening globally, such as disparities and health inequity, I wanted to build health equity and a safer environment for my community and family,” said Kumar, who comes from a South Asian immigrant family and recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public health.
She said she hopes to work for a county public health department or community-based organization, and eventually return to UC Merced to teach the next generation of students.
“Knowing that I am able to use my education and directly impact my community and be the change I wish to see has been a great motivator to pursue my degree and career in public health,” she said.
Bhat also recently graduated from UC Merced with a bachelor’s degree in public health.
“I grew up in the Bay Area, and Merced wasn’t even on my radar until it came time to apply to colleges, but deciding to go to UC Merced was one of the best decisions I could have made for my education,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to be involved in a variety of areas on campus, including being a member of the Public Health Society for the past three years.”
The pandemic also impacted Bhat’s choice to enter public health. She said she would see experts speaking to the media about COVID-19.
“I hadn’t fully decided on a major at the time, but I was interested in applying to medical school, so I thought I’d take a few public health classes to better inform myself of the system I was planning on working in,” she said. “Once I took my first public health class, though, I loved it and decided to switch my major.”
Bhat hopes to continue to work in the medical field and eventually attend medical school.
Naidu, a first-generation college graduate, recently received dual bachelor’s degrees in sociology and public health.
“I'm interested in working on initiatives that incorporate epidemiology, the social determinants of health, and community-based research,” he said. “This fall, I am excited to enroll in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University to pursue a master's degree in public health.”
Naidu aspires to be a social epidemiologist, focusing on improving the health outcomes of immigrant communities.
“I am particularly interested in tackling the root causes of preventable chronic and infectious diseases by addressing the underlying socioeconomic factors that contribute to them.”
Frazier started her senior year at UC Merced this fall.
“My social epidemiology course from fall semester 2022, in which I learned how social factors affect people's health and well-being, inspired me to pursue a career in epidemiology,” she said. “I’m interested in researching how institutional and systemic inequities impact individuals' health, specifically among racial minorities.”
After graduating, Frazier said she plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health with a concentration in epidemiology.
“Ultimately, in the field of public health, I want to support systemic reform to lessen health disparities and increase health equity,” she said.
Reza also started her senior year this fall.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, I lost faith in humanity due to the racism and chaos that was happening globally,” said Reza, a first-generation immigrant who grew up in Southern California. “However, after taking Global Health, I was introduced to the global efforts taking place around the world to help create change.”
After completing her bachelor’s degree at UC Merced, Reza hopes to pursue a master’s degree in nursing and ultimately become a public health nurse.
“My goal is to create and promote programs that are specifically tailored to underserved communities,” she said.
Valle also is a first-generation college graduate. He majored in biological sciences with a human emphasis and is pursuing a career in chiropractic care.
“Coming to UC Merced was a drastic change for me as everyone in my family has lived in Los Angeles their entire lives,” he said. “As of right now, going to college was the hardest thing I have done in my life, not because of the very rigorous courses I had to take, but because I was away from my family for so long.”
But Valle said he found community on campus with PHS.
“I was very interested in contributing to my community.” he said. “I used the Public Health Society as an outlet to do so.”
Valle said he plans to focus on affordable care and building resources in his community to promote wellness and health.
Montiel-Castro is an incoming second-year student from Madera majoring in biological sciences with a human emphasis.
“I am interested in researching pesticide use and how to reduce or improve the use of it to decrease the risk of workers having health problems in the future,” she said.
Montiel-Castro hopes to become a nurse and then a nurse anesthesiologist, working close to home so she can give back to the community through scholarships for low-income students.
She was inspired by her parents, who worked in Central Valley fields to support their family.
“My parents often had swollen feet or hands, back pain and joint pain, but they never complained,” she said. “It is because of them that I decided to pursue higher education at UC Merced. Knowing that I can help reduce their pain through a public health career is what makes everything worthwhile.”