Despite Hardships Student Connie Lafuente Pursues Career Helping Others

by Connie Lafuente

Students of Public Health: Voices & Profiles focuses on research projects and other contributions students are making to advance public health.

Connie Lafuente

STUDENT VOICES — Growing up in Bolivia, I witnessed the devastation that diseases cause on individuals and family members, especially among people who are trapped in poverty. I witnessed the hardships of food insecurity, lack of access to health care, lack of knowledge on disease prevention, social injustice, and poverty. I decided then that my personal mission would be to provide preventative education services to vulnerable communities to improve their overall quality of life and reduce health disparities.

At 17, I immigrated to the United States and encountered several barriers and hardships that migrants often face: I did not know English, I did not know how to navigate the health care system, and I experienced the fear and emotional distress of leaving my family behind.

So I went to school to learn English. I enrolled at a community college and then transferred to San Diego State University (SDSU). While attending SDSU, I was fortunate to land an internship at United Way of San Diego County. There I learned that health disparities are not only present in a country like Bolivia but also in the United States.

Later, I worked with Blue Cross of California in the Medical and Healthy Families programs, looking at the lack of health care access for migrant communities. While working at the California Department of Public Health Office of Binational Border Health, I became aware of the seriousness of infectious and chronic diseases in the United States, especially among the Latino community.

In 2014, I joined Project Concern International’s (PCI) US and Border programs as a director of the community health workers programs. PCI’s mission is to empower people to enhance health, end hunger, and overcome hardship. I work specifically with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) REACH ALCANCE, and the Career Ladder Innovation and Multicultural Bridge (CLIMB) programs.

Through the ALCANCE program, PCI offers a 10-week Community Health Worker (CHW) Leadership Academy with the goals of providing community and clinical linkages and increasing awareness of chronic disease prevention, risk reduction, and/or management among Latinos with the highest rates of poverty and chronic disease burdens in four targeted zip code areas: Golden Hills, City Heights, Sherman Heights, and National City.

ALCANCE Graduation, February 2017

Through the CLIMB program, PCI offers the CHW Leadership Academy, Life Skills, and HEAL (mental health wellness classes) to multi-ethnic groups. Additionally, PCI offers a four-week Alzheimer’s training course.

CLIMB graduation, August 2017

The ALCANCE and CLIMB programs aim to support community members by increasing capacity and providing career pathway opportunities for participants to advance their career goals. Within three years of program implementation, ALCANCE trained and graduated 305 CHWs. These graduates conducted outreach activities engaging 2,015 community members with chronic disease prevention messages and referrals to access services.

Within one year of program implementation, CLIMB trained and graduated a total of 119 CHWs and reached 286 community members with prevention messages and information to access services. Graduates from both programs have shared testimonies on the impact and benefits of participating in these programs. Some of the testimonies include  changing eating habits, incorporating regular exercise, losing weight, accessing preventive services, enrolling in college, securing jobs, and starting their own businesses.

All of my professional and personal experiences have led me to seek my masters degree in public health (MPH) from SDSU. As a non-traditional student, I am pursuing my degree as a single mother with two teens as well as a full-time job. While challenging, the support of my family, mentor, friends, and co-workers has been instrumental in helping me attain this career goal. Serving migrant communities facing numerous hardships, such as language barriers, lack of knowledge, limited or no access to health care, unemployment, fear, housing and food insecurities, is my calling. I plan to continue working in public health, serving and empowering vulnerable populations to overcome hardships, enhance their quality of life, and reduce health disparities.

My life advice to other public health students is to follow your passion, focus on what is meaningful to you, and get involved in advocacy and public policy to support programs. Work in collaboration with other public health professionals, partner with multi-sectoral groups to leverage resources, and create common goals toward improving health outcomes and health equity. Find a mentor and become a visionary, strategic, and critical thinker. My career in public health has been very fulfilling, and every day is a new day with challenges and rewards.

Connie Lafuente is currently attending San Diego State University (SDSU) to obtain her master’s degree in public health. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing. She is a bilingual and bicultural public health professional with over 20 years’ experience in the health care field. Follow her on Facebook and LinkedIn.