Even though Valen Diaz has known since high school that she wanted a career in health care, volunteer work in the Dominican Republic changed her forever.
An EMT before she entered college, Diaz came to UConn thinking she would go on to medical school. Instead, she will graduate this May with an individualized major in healthcare and health disparities. A visit with a service-learning group from the University to the batyes, enclaves where Haitian sugar cane workers live in the Dominican Republic, was life changing.
“I had never been on a plane or outside the country, but I was interested in learning about Latin America where some of my family is from,” she says. “I had never seen anything that extreme. After that, I looked at things in a whole new way.”
The daughter of a Cuban immigrant, Diaz also spent a semester studying in Cuba, an experience she describes as ‘”incredible.”
During the summer of 2008, Diaz completed an internship at the Hispanic Health Council in Hartford, working with the Health Outreach for Medical Equity pediatric care coordination program. She also participated in the University’s urban semester program in Hartford last fall and worked with the Hartford Food System and the City of Hartford Advisory Commission on Food Policy.
She found many people feel that providing a turkey to the poor at Thanksgiving or giving a small contribution to a food pantry will solve hunger, when in fact the issues are very complex and the needs vast.
“We need to provide sustainable food, help people to make healthier connections, sell good food at reasonable prices into small, local stores, and make sure our food is actually food. So much of our food is manufactured — it is not grown but made in labs,” she says.
An honors scholar, Diaz will spend the next two years teaching life science classes to seventh and eighth graders in the Watts section of Los Angeles as part of the Teach for America program.
One of the reasons the principal of the charter school wanted her, she says, was because she could speak some Spanish. “The school is 85 percent Latino and 15 percent black and most of the parents cannot speak English,” she says. “Surprisingly, only two of the teachers speak Spanish. ”
Although Diaz, the recipient of both a Rowe and a leadership scholarship and a finalist last year for the Truman scholarship, knows now that medical school is not right for her, she hopes to pursue a career in public health after the Teach for America program.
And in the meantime, she hopes to continue with her hobby — Spanish dancing. This year, she performed salsa, merengue, and bachata routines with UConn B.A.I.L.E. (Bringing Awareness Into Latin Ethnicities) at Jorgensen Auditorium’s Latin Fest.