Nery Rodriguez went to the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, an exam school in Boston, but she entered UMass Lowell without declaring a major.
A first-generation college student, she’d always enjoyed math and biology, but she wasn’t interested in pursuing either one full time. So she started her UMass Lowell career by taking psychology, criminal justice, history and philosophy classes to fulfill her “breadth of knowledge” requirements, while checking out possible courses of study.
While she found psychology and criminal justice interesting, she couldn’t see herself working in either field. And she struggled in history and philosophy, she says.
As freshman year wound down, Rodriguez got more and more anxious, both about her poor grades in those subjects and her lack of a career path.
“I was just stressed. I was really overwhelmed. My biggest fear was disappointing my family,” she says. “None of my family members went to college, so I didn’t have anyone older who could advise me.”
Fortunately, she was in the River Hawk Scholars Academy (RHSA), a supportive community for first-year, first-generation college students. Based on Rodriguez’s interests, the academic advisor for the RHSA suggested that she look into majors within the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences.
“I want to be successful, so I started doing my own research and talking to friends,” she says. “A couple of friends who went to my high school were studying public health, and one of my suitemates mentioned she was a public health major. And people told me it’s a growing career.”
She signed up for her first public health classes as a sophomore – and loved them. For Rodriguez, public health felt like the perfect combination of science, math, and helping people and communities.
“Nursing or exercise science, you’re looking at one person. With public health, you’re looking at a population and how to deal with health disparities,” she says.
Because her family are immigrants from El Salvador, many of them working low-wage jobs, she understands how stark those disparities can be. She wants to be part of the movement to reduce health disparities and increase the role of prevention in the U.S. health care system, she says.
“Even though we have health insurance, it’s not the best, and I see my family members stress over how to pay for medication. Sometimes, people delay going to the doctor because they’re worried about the cost,” she says. “I want to help with closing all those gaps, helping those communities that are not really looked at.”
Rodriguez is grateful for the support provided to her by the RHSA, especially her peer leader, a fellow first-generation college student who’d been one year ahead of Rodriguez at the same high school. Emily Crespo gave Rodriguez the advice and encouragement she needed during her rocky first year, she says.
Crespo also encouraged Rodriguez to apply for a work-study job with Jumpstart, a program to increase literacy among low-income preschool children in Lowell.
“I always loved little children,” Rodriguez says. “And every time that I would step in the classroom, if I was in a bad mood, I’d just forget about it.”
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic means she can no longer work directly with the children, she says. The pandemic has widened health gaps for low-income people and communities, too.
Yet it has also highlighted the vital role of public health professionals, and that’s made Rodriguez more determined than ever to excel at her studies. She’s considering going on for a master’s degree in public health through the bachelor’s to master’s program.
“If I were to pursue my master’s, I know that I’ll have a lot of options,” she says. “I know there will be a lot of jobs there for me.”