A class on the social determinants of health, combined with a work-study job for the preschool program JumpStart, inspired public health major Valeria Saldana to work in health care for children.
“At first, I wanted to be a doctor,” says Saldana, who joined a living-learning community for pre-med students during her first year at UMass Lowell. “Now, I want to be a speech therapist or a physician assistant with a focus on pediatrics. There are so many jobs, so many things I could do with my public health degree, so I’m trying to dip in my feet and see where I can go.”
That class on the social determinants of health, taught by Public Health Asst. Prof. Angela Wangari Walter, helped Saldana to see the effects of early childhood education and health care on adult health and success, she says.
“She is passionate about what she teaches and she cares about her students doing well. She uses images, examples and facts that I’ve never forgotten – like that children’s reading levels in third grade are directly connected to high school graduation rates,” Saldana says. 
Saldana, a first-generation college student from Revere, Massachusetts, has worked for JumpStart, a literacy program for preschool children from low-income families, since the beginning of her first year at UML. “I adore children,” she says.
The pre-med living-learning community, the public health program and JumpStart all helped Saldana, who describes herself as “very social,” make friends and find communities that gave her a sense of belonging during her first year of college. That was especially important to her as a first-generation college student.
Then, Saldana found yet another community when she responded to an email inviting students to join the Student Government Association (SGA) – a community where she could meet and advocate for students from across the campus.
“I feel like college can be a little nerve-wracking – your parents drop you off, you don’t know anyone. It might not be as easy for some people to make friends and feel like this is your new home,” she says. “There’s so much we can do to help students to make sure everything’s flowing well. So I thought, let me go check this out.”
She signed on as a senator representing the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, and in the spring of her sophomore year, she was elected chair of the SGA’s Campus Life and Environment Committee. 
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, her committee focused on gauging how students were doing with remote learning, isolated from friends and sometimes family. Then, she helped advocate for professors to offer more live discussion during class times, for students to keep their cameras on – and for the university to increase its mental health resources and outreach.
As a senior, Saldana plans to spend a semester studying abroad in Spain while deciding on next steps. In the meantime, she has gotten certified as a phlebotomist so she can get a job drawing blood.
Saldana, who was in the first cohort of students to be inducted into Tri-Alpha, an honor society for first-generation college students, says UMass Lowell continues to provide opportunities to expand her circles of friends. She says that she knew from her first visit to campus that she had found a welcoming community.
“I felt instantly like it was where I belonged,” she says. “I love it. I have found one of my best friends here. I truly have felt like this was my second home, and my first home when I’m on campus.”