Global health: Springboard to a career

by Vanessa Rivera

As a Cornell Global Health minor, I was eager to study the social aspects of human biology and medicine. I spoke of my desire to “help others” and “create change.”
I lacked the exact words and experiences to describe what I wanted to pursue:
global health medicine.

Now, two years after completing my Cornell degree, it is useful to reflect on where I have come from, realizing what has shaped my life journey and passion for health and healing.

I was raised in Houston, Texas by immigrant parents. The role my mother’s culture played in my family was central. Castellano was the language I spoke at home, my abuelos helped take care of me and merienda was the snack I had after school.

Uruguayan culture was the backbone of my Hispanic identity, and education was my parents’ priority for me. My family could not financially support my way through college, but my going was nonnegotiable. I became a first-generation college graduate, and I have been inspired to help others follow this path as well.

Recurring themes of health equity have reinforced my passion to pursue global health medicine in limited resource settings.

My first health experience abroad was fulfilling the eight-week fieldwork requirement for the Global Health minor in 2013. I lived in Cusco, Peru and worked as a research assistant implementing a feasibility study on the efficacy of infant vaccine reminder bracelets. I enrolled mothers and infants into our study.

I quickly learned that critical determinants of human development, such as routine vaccination for newborns, so  integrated into societal structures in some places of the world, do not exist in others. The basic human right to health is still withheld from many mothers around the globe.

After graduation in 2014, I was the teaching assistant on Cornell’s first Global Health experience in the Dominican Republic. This program is dedicated to alternative methods of medicine in global health, from traditional healing to holistic, socio-psychological public health models. As we studied holistic and traditional healing at the ANDA community center, we became a part of a vibrant Dominican community. In the DR, I grew to respect the importance of learning local history and context, including spiritual practices, as vital components of healing.

The Cornell Global Health Program and the enriching experiences abroad it afforded me provided me with a springboard to explore a career in global health research.

Currently, I work as a full-time research coordinator at an infectious disease clinic and AIDS research center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. During the past two years, I have explored how basic science and clinical care can work together to effect societal changes through clinical research.

Connecting my current work and my past experiences in the Global Health Program, I realize that the role of clinician, researcher and patient advocate become synergistic through medicine. In my interactions with doctors and patients,
I find myself eager to ask questions to fill the gaps in my medical knowledge to learn not only the socio-psychological aspects of disease, but also the science behind patients’ diagnoses, infection and treatment and clinical management.

These experiences, made possible through Cornell Global Health, have transformed my understanding of what it means to be a physician and have inspired me to pursue medical school in the coming year.

Vanessa Rivera graduated from Cornell University in 2014. She studied Policy Analysis and Management and minored in Global Health. She held a leadership role in the Cornell Global Health Program in the Dominican Republic in 2014 and 2016.


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