Doctoral candidate in public health, Gabriela “Gaby” Fernandez, was the first one in her family who considered going to college in the U.S. “I felt as the ‘odd’ one in the family who was really into school. Most of my extended family hadn’t had the opportunity for higher education. I was a first-generation American citizen, born and raised in Brownsville, TX.”
Fernandez, like many first-generation immigrant kids, had a lot of responsibility to help her younger brother and parents navigate their new home and culture. “At home, we spoke only in Spanish, which I’m glad for because it preserved the language for my brother and I.”
While Fernandez' parents spoke limited English and didn’t know the system here in the U.S., they did value education and knew it was important for their kids to do well in school.
“They were really strict about schoolwork being a priority, and before I knew it, I was valedictorian at my high school in Brownsville.”
“While I was in high school, things along the border in Matamoros, Mexico, where my parents worked, got violent affecting their work and income. We went through a difficult financial time. This was right when I was preparing to go to college, and there was no way my parents could have afforded to help.”
It was a teacher who made all the difference in the trajectory of Gaby’s life.
“Mrs. Puckett at my high school (Rivera High School) encouraged and equipped me to apply for scholarships and financial aid. Her support inspired me to want to come back home eventually to give back to others in my home town.”
Fernandez received the Gates Millennium Scholarship, a full ride to the University of Texas at Austin (UT). She worked through college to help her family financially and graduated successfully from UT. She knew she would eventually come home, but first, she had another goal. She applied for graduate school at Columbia University, where she received a Masters’ degree in Public Health.
“My eyes were opened living in New York City, but mostly I learned so much from the internships and opportunities to volunteer with low-income Latinos in the Washington Heights neighborhood. People’s struggles were similar to those here along the border, but there were so many more resources available to them as patients since New York has expanded Medicaid and the clinics have more funding.”
After a couple of years in New York, Fernandez was ready to return home to Brownsville, and serve her own community.
“Coming home was a little hard finding what I wanted, which was to work in health care administration. I was fortunate to work at Su Clinica, a federally qualified health center, and take on more and more responsibilities. I want to continue growing and learning about healthcare administration and help connect healthcare organizations with effective community programs to better serve those most in need. I would also love to be able to teach in the future and help develop public healthcare leaders from my own community who understand the culture and can really impact the community for good.”
Fernandez chose to continue her studies for a doctorate in public health (DrPH) at the UTHealth Houston, School of Public Health.
“The DrPH program in Brownsville is perfect for me because while I enjoy research, I wanted something more applied to stay involved in leading public health. The work they do in Brownsville is special. The passion of the staff is inspiring and the approach is to work with the community with humility and trust.”