MyHCN Insider Look: Interview with Maribel Sierra, HCC '14

Each and every one of us has a unique story. We all have a very specific preface that has led us to where we are today. We have unwritten blank pages for the weeks, months, and years that lie ahead of today. At myHCN, we like to dive deep into these stories and share.

We had the opportunity to chat with Maribel Sierra, a long-time myHCN member, HCC alum, and passionate public health professional and graduate student. Maribel is currently pursuing an MPH at UNC Gillings School of Global Public health, with key interest in health policies including nutrition & food security, as well as environmental health. She gave us the exciting 411 on her career pathway - where she started, where she’s at, and where she’s going.

myHCN: Tell me a little about your background up until this point. You worked after undergrad for a few years before attending graduate school. What did you do and how did the experiences shape you?

Maribel: I studied biology in undergrad, and was interested in medicine as a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill. I liked my biology work but at the same time, I was drawn to learning more about Latino/a culture through my Spanish courses, and specifically the intersection between the culture and health -- this naturally led to me becoming interested in public health. I found it to be a great way to understand the blend of both science and people. After graduating, I took my first job at a non-profit organization called Clean Water for North Carolina. This involved environmental justice work and allowed me to learn about a different branch of public health. Although the organization was primarily focused on safe drinking water, it gave me a better understanding of what public health means on a local level.

myHCN: So you took a very different type of approach to public health by joining Clean Water - that sounds like a really unique experience giving you a fresh perspective!  

Maribel: Yes it was! After working three years at Clean Water, I did my Health Career Connection (HCC) internship at Lincoln Community Health Center (LCHC) in North Carolina. There, I learned so much about chronic diseases, prevention, and health promotion. It prompted me to think more about how other systems of power play into public health. I had the chance to look closer at patient-centered care provided at community health centers like LCHC. After my internship I was really curious to keep building off my interest in public health by finding opportunities in California, a state known for its progressive policies. I ended up working at the Public Health Institute which leads many public health programs throughout California and internationally. The program I worked was the USAID Global Health Fellows Program (GHFP) II.

myHCN: What did your role in PHI and USAID’s Global Health Fellows program look like?  

Maribel: After being so used to working in small nonprofits, it was quite an exciting transition to move to a larger scale public health organization. I saw the bigger picture of global health through USAID projects in developing countries. I specialized in outreach and communications to help grow a diverse group of global health professionals at the USAID Bureau for Global Health. As a program, GHFP-II continues to strive for a global health workforce that mirrors the American population more accurately. I learned a lot more about PHI’s goals and USAID’s role as a major funder of global health work.

myHCN: That’s incredible. A diverse workforce in health care means a lot better patient-focused care, inclusive policy implementation, and more widely beneficial reform efforts. When did you decide to go back to grad school and how did these experiences prepare you for applying?

Maribel: Well, I really focused on gaining exposure in different public health settings. I wanted to think about my purpose for attending grad school rather carefully - you need to be sure of what you want to get out of it! At first I had some doubts. I had to trust my gut and go for it without being afraid of rejection. I knew I wanted to study public health, and I knew that having my work experiences would really help articulate where I’ve been, where I want to go, and why. However as everyone should, I kept in mind that I wouldn’t be accepted to every single school I applied to and that being solely concerned with the “brand-name’ of the school wouldn’t be my criteria for the best-fit. I spent six years between undergrad and grad school before finding the right program best-suited for my career. I started my Master’s in Public Health August 2017 to study health behavior.

myHCN: What does that entail?

Maribel: Currently looking at social determinants and social structures, I want to eventually do something in health communications and/or health policy. UNC created the first health behavior MPH program of its kind, and many other universities refer to it as social or behavior health.

myHCN: How did you prepare for the interview/application process? Any tips you can provide to someone in those shoes right now?

Maribel: At PHI, I was lucky to have some time to leverage my network for the application process. My professional network was very helpful and supportive during this time. Sometimes it’s a bit scary trying to get recommendations for a program when you’ve been out of school for some time, but the best advice I can give is to leverage the people around you who know you enough to speak about your work ethic. I talked about my professional goals with co-workers and worked on my resume, letters of statement, etc. to get ready for the application process. It was helpful to talk to people at PHI who knew my goals and were well-equipped to write authentic recommendations. I would say take the time to get to know your co-workers. Hear their stories and how they got to their position. It can be a bit unnerving to go to senior-level position holders, but you’ll be surprised by how many love to share their advice and experiences with you!

myHCN: So, about the GREs...

Maribel: A lot of applicants get worried about GRE scores. I personally spent a lot of time test-prepping leading up to submitting my application for grad school. I spent about six months knowing that this was a weak point of mine being out of school for a few years. It pays off to have a good structure in place before applying to grad school because then you can identify the parts of the application process you need to spend more time on. I used books to self-study and had to build in the time while I was working at PHI. It took some time to muster up the energy to prepare, and although my scores weren’t “amazing,” it was reassuring to know that there are other more important things besides test scores. To name a few, things like work experiences, recommendations, and personal statements are evaluated very carefully. Also, just to throw in another tip - money is key. Try to be as resourceful as possible when trying to find funding. Do your due diligence for financial aid. Be persistent in your search, and apply to anything no matter how small it may seem.

myHCN: That’s excellent advice. What is something surprising you have encountered during your first semester at UNC?

Maribel: Because I did my undergrad here, not much surprised me actually. I am really happy with my decision to go here. I had a great option in California and Washington D.C, but UNC best met my needs for cost, location, and the program. I also had a few friends who went through the program already that could share a bit about their experiences. One thing that did surprise me about coming back to school however, is how much is always happening on campus - and that’s a good thing! Although it can sometimes feel overwhelming, being back in school opens a lot of door for you as a student. You have so many resources available to you like guest speakers and networking events. I encourage everyone in graduate school to take stock of all the resources available and to explore what it’s like to live in that city or town.

myHCN: If you could go back in time to when you decided to apply to grad school, what would you tell your younger self?

Maribel: Early on I was stressed out for sure. It’s always weird seeing how everyone goes off taking very different paths after undergrad. Some of the people I went to undergrad with are finishing med school or doing their PhD. All in all, everything happens at different times for people, so you can’t compare your path to others’. Do not base your progress on the basis of someone else’s. You need to have a clear purpose for grad school, not just to fulfill other people’s expectations. It’s something you choose for yourself, and you are allowed to take your time. It’s okay to not follow a “linear path.” Be patient with yourself.

myHCN: That is so refreshing to hear. myHCN is all about owning your personal journey. What is a public health challenge you hope to immerse yourself with in the future?

Maribel: Lately I’ve been noticing my interests veering towards nutrition, food security, and food policy. I’d love to do something that fits into policy and communication skills with respect to working in nutrition programs. I really like the Food and Water Watch since they do a lot of work on advocacy including food safety and sustainable farming, the Center for Food Policy, and overall health promotion in the public health space.

You can connect with Maribel on LinkedIn and learn more about her exciting career pathway. We know she’s one to watch, and can’t wait to continue following her success in the public health arena!

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