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Public Health Students Graduate and Enter the Workforce During Unprecedented Times

How three students from the first graduating class of the UC San Diego Wertheim School of Public Health plan to inspire change in the field

By Jeanna Vazquez   |   June 25, 2020

It was a day of firsts.

The first graduating class of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science listened, on June 12, 2020, to the school’s founding dean and the university’s first Black, female dean Cheryl Anderson, PhD, MPH, during a commencement ceremony conducted by video conference.

public health graduates

“This is such an important time to be going into public health,” said Anderson. “Our students are beginning at a time when we have a public health crisis, a social crisis and an economic crisis, all at the same time. Now, our students get to see all the things that they’ve trained for coming alive right here in their community.”

At commencement, the school’s vision of prevention, equity and optimal health for all citizens reverberated in messaging to the inaugural class of 180 graduates, who enter a world wracked by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and global civil unrest spurred by efforts to address systemic racism. 

“The public health community knows all too well that there is a deep and long-standing public health crisis of racism,” said Anderson. “We see it not only in the disproportionate impact of police brutality upon Black American citizens and other historically marginalized groups, but also in disparities regarding chronic diseases, the impact and treatment of COVID-19, nutrition and healthy lifestyle behaviors, exposure to pollution, maternal and child health, and other contemporary public health issues.”

Anderson impressed upon the students to use this time as an opportunity to become advocates for change, voices for those without and to create demand for a strong public health infrastructure. Here are three students’ stories.

Personal Experience Propels Compassionate Care

Aina Guatno

During her first year of college, Aina Guatno’s mother passed away after coping with diabetic complications for several years. The moment impacted Guatno’s perspective on academics and cemented her decision to focus solely on her major in public health. Her time at UC San Diego provided Guatno with the opportunity to reflect on how her own family experienced obstacles to receiving adequate health care, and inspired her to make a difference.

“I grew up in a low-income community, so there were a lot of challenges to gain access to financial services and barriers to basic health care, but my parents always found a way to care for us,” said Guatno. “Through this personal experience, my passion for public health grew stronger.”

According to Guatno, her Introduction to Public Health course opened her eyes to the field’s possibilities, from working with the county to effect policy changes and educational programs to interacting with hospitals and patients to ensure appropriate health care.

“Public health is the best first step toward making a positive change in providing equitable health care access,” said Guatno. “Many people are not treated fairly when it comes to health care, and my goal is to work in those communities, like the one where I was raised, to help address such inequities.”

Driving Systemic Change

Nathaniel Badii

For Nathaniel “Zall” Badii, graduating during such uncertain times sparked a vision of creating systemic change within the health care industry as a whole; focusing on laws pertaining to access, quality and cost. 

“We don’t have equity in health care, and it’s particularly tragic because it truly is life or death,” said Badii. “Public health is unique because it sits at the intersection of politics, medical science and defense. I’m really excited to enter the field during this time and hope to bring about a transformational change.”

Badii’s plans to gain both Masters in Public Health and Juris Doctor degrees. Growing up in a multi-ethnic home in San Diego, he relies upon his Iranian and Mexican heritage to provide care for others and uses that as a driving force for his career goals.

“I’ve personally seen how a person’s race directly affects their health outcomes and believe that medical science hasn’t gotten us there on its own. This work must be guided by a strong sense of justice in order to properly safeguard the health of our communities.”

Utilizing Health Care as a Public Service

Focusing on prevention and legislation as a tool to help people avoid hospitalization is what led Jose Gonzalez to public health as a career.

Jose Gonzalez

“I want to do something that is going to help others, and public health is the outlet that will,” he said.

Propelling his decision to go into the legislative side of public health was Gonzalez’s experience with the University of California Washington Program (UCDC), which provides UC students with an opportunity to intern in the nation’s capital while continuing their academic course work. Last year, Gonzalez was the UC San Diego student representative and a general legislative intern for Senator Kamala Harris. Gonzalez said he was exposed to many different facets of public health and discovered how legislation can affect thousands, perhaps millions, of people in need.

“It’s a very scary time and there’s so much uncertainty globally, but we have to remain positive,” said Gonzalez. “A positive perspective helps me know that we can be the change we want to see in this world, and times like what we’re facing provide us with an opportunity to start making changes for the betterment of all.”

Though their online commencement wasn’t what students or faculty expected, the moment was still one they say they will never forget.

“What we all have in common is time and our humanity. What we do with those two things defines who we are,” said Dr. Herbert Wertheim, noted optometrist, scientist and philanthropist. “With this inaugural graduating class, I encourage each of them to value their time and their humanity and go forth.”

Cheryl Anderson

Public health has been a part of the School of Medicine at UC San Diego since 1966. The Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science was established at University of California San Diego in 2019 with a $25 million lead gift from the Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Family Foundation, with an emphasis on research and education designed to prevent disease, prolong life and promote health through organized community efforts.

“We’ve created a really exceptional school where we have academic excellence in an environment where our constituents will sustainably thrive,” said Anderson. “Our faculty and staff have been working collaboratively to set a culture that upholds the core values we hold dear in public health.”

“I’m excited for what’s to come as we lead this ambitious effort to engage the entire university and San Diego community in our quest for optimal health for all citizens.”