Blog Post

My experiences as a First-Gen Latina in Public Health

We’re excited to welcome our new program officer, Paulina Lopez, to CT Health. She wrote this blog post to introduce herself and explain why health equity is so important to her. You can reach her at

This is a headshot of Paulina Lopez. She is a Latina woman wearing a purple blazer and white shirt.I moved from Medellin, Colombia, to the United States with my family at age two. My parents are typical Hispanic immigrants – selfless and resilient. It was hard not to connect the hardships we experienced as immigrants with the patterns I noticed within my own family and other families around me. Little did I know that these experiences would lead me to pursuing an education in public health.

From an early age, I knew about inequality. I saw it happening within my community, school systems, health care, and education. I was the young child who would accompany my mother to her medical appointments, and at the age of eight, I became her medical translator. I remember being nervous that I would translate incorrectly and lead the doctor to misdiagnose her condition. I witnessed how difficult it was for my parents – who do not speak English, have limited transportation, and are perpetually overworked – to navigate the health care system. They needed translation, transportation, and financial assistance, all of which were a nightmare to access. I saw how easy it was for others to get the care they needed and wondered, “Why is it so different for my family?”

Once I learned more about the health care system, it all made sense.

I went to Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven, where I focused my education on health care by taking medical Spanish courses, anatomy courses at Yale’s School of Medicine, and an emergency responder certification course. I loved the idea of helping others navigate the health care system to get the care they deserve.

Despite my excitement, I wasn’t certain if I would be able to work in health care, because I was undocumented. I passed the courses, I did the work, but couldn’t become certified because I did not have a Social Security Number – a story very common in the lives of undocumented students.

That changed when I was 17 and my family was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. My family had a pending naturalization application, and being detained is what saved us from being deported and led to us gaining legal status.

In college, I worked as a pharmacy technician, and witnessed the inequalities in accessing life-saving medication. I saw patients with diabetes and hypertension choose between their health and financial well-being. I remember doing everything possible to help patients get their medication at an affordable price, but it was not always successful. Later, as a certified nursing assistant and while working for a maternal and child health home visitation program, I worked with many people who had been without reliable access to health care for most of their lives. I was heartbroken to see how teen moms struggled to navigate their prenatal care while trying to raise a child, get an education, and be a teenager.

Later, while working at the West Haven Health Department, I connected with the Hispanic population and learned more about their needs. One woman who worked at McDonald’s told me she did not have insurance and knew that she was at the age to get a mammogram but didn’t know where to go and how to find this service. In response, I created a “mammogram day,” when West Haven residents could come to the health department and get a mammogram at no cost. Minor interventions like this one motivated me to continue using health education to address inequities in health care.

Most recently, I worked at the dental plan for HUSKY, where I saw the severe effects of poor oral health. As a care coordinator and outreach specialist, I had the opportunity to hear my clients’ stories. Many members said they didn’t trust the dental system and were afraid that they would receive poor care because they’re enrolled in the Medicaid program. They would rather deal with the pain and dental issues than put themselves in an uncomfortable position. Other members explained that they simply didn’t know that they had dental insurance through HUSKY Health. Others delayed dental care because of lack of time due to employment, or transportation or language barriers. It’s a difficult structure to navigate but organizations like the dental plan for HUSKY help members get the care they need.

All my experiences working in a health care system that is broken, complicated, and dysfunctional motivated me to get my Master’s in Public Health to gain the skills to improve this complex system and promote positive change in the lives of the communities I’ve worked with and will work with in the future. It’s time to address public health issues that affect societies now and for generations to come.

As I finish my MPH, I am eager to work toward health equity and work for an organization that strives toward and values the importance of creating health equity from a systems change approach. Focusing on how the health system is structured can lead to changes that will allow it to better serve those who are most affected by health inequities.

To address health disparities, organizations need to address the problems from the root and work together to a create a system that better serves those who are having to make arduous decisions between paying for their health or groceries. I’m eager to meet the foundation’s many partners and future partners and work together to develop solutions that foster equal opportunity for health, which is the foundation for vibrant, healthy communities.