Communities of Hope: Optimism and Resilience on the Islands of Life

Mislael Valentín-Cortés

Mislael Valentín-Cortés

Master’s Student in Health Behavior and Health Education and Social Work, Scott K. Simonds Scholarship, Natalie and Jack Blumenthal Internship Fund


Public health was not a consideration for me until a few years ago. I am from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and in the island, we don't really talk about "public health" as much as we should. We have physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, and other health professionals, but professional public health practice is underrepresented throughout Puerto Rico.

I attended the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez for undergrad and began seeking disciplines that would help me address the existing social welfare challenges and negative health outcomes that have left the island in distress. I undertook coursework in social sciences and got involved in extracurricular activities that exposed me to community service, health promotion, and research.

The sense of community I found at Michigan was unparalleled, and the curriculum and coursework stood out as well.

During this time, I learned about the Future Public Health Leaders Program (FPHLP) at the University of Michigan, an internship program sponsored by the CDC and designed to encourage students from underrepresented communities to pursue careers in public health. This opportunity to explore public health as a career option led directly to my decision to pursue an MPH.

Everyone I met at Michigan Public Health was incredibly passionate about public health and making a difference in people's lives. The sense of community I found at Michigan was unparalleled, and the curriculum and coursework stood out as well. The emphasis on balancing research and practice was attractive, as well as the university's tremendous resources to carry out those pursuits.

Moving so far from home for graduate school was difficult for me and my family, but engagement with student org work is often what keeps me going. I spent most of my first year involved with La Salud, the Latinx/Hispanic student organization at Michigan Public Health. We organized a Week of Celebrating Cultural Resistance and assisted with Alumni Networking Night at the school, and we supported campus-wide initiatives like Hispanic Heritage month observances. La Salud also organized a fundraiser for Puerto Rico hurricane relief, raising over $1,000 to donate community water filters and emergency kits for communities affected by the hurricane.

I have seen firsthand the adverse circumstances and health outcomes that come from scarce resources, poor public planning, and threatening climate conditions.

This summer I'm fortunate to be involved with three internship projects. In South Texas, we're looking at emergency preparedness and community resilience in response to disasters with an NGO that works with elders and persons with disability who are also experiencing poverty—populations deeply affected by Hurricane Harvey over the past year. In collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus and the Office of Public Health Practice here at the school, I'll be working to assess the needs of elderly persons in Puerto Rico affected by the hurricane season and developing interventions through workshops and by facilitating access to resources. And with the Puerto Rico Department of Health, I'm analyzing public policy and epidemiologic data on obesity to develop a health promotion campaign and to support existing community efforts to promote physical activity and nutrition.

It is obviously no coincidence that Puerto Rico and disaster preparedness are themes across my academic and extracurricular activities. I am very focused on what I can do to help people there. I have seen firsthand and experienced myself the adverse circumstances and health outcomes that come from scarce resources, poor public planning, and threatening climate conditions. And what we see in the US media only scratches the surface of the daily realities.

It's important to remember that last year's hurricane was a new layer in an already existing economic crisis across the island. Debt and unemployment rates were and remain high, and with the post-hurricane infrastructure, even those with jobs have difficulty getting to work.

As dire as things are in Puerto Rico, we are clinging to threads of hope. One such thread is the potential of public health.

Emergency preparedness protocols in Puerto Rico already had a lot of gaps. Many young people—including many health care professionals—leave the island for educational and professional opportunities and do not return. Meanwhile, the aging population remaining on the island becomes more and more isolated. We have poor health care delivery, including regular interruptions in vital services like dialysis and in delivery of life-saving medications like insulin. Even the most basic services have broken down. Corpses are sometimes not picked up from homes for months after people die. Again, the hurricane exacerbated these problems.

Hurricane season is in full swing again this year, and Puerto Rico is not prepared. At the moment, a single tree can knock out power to much of the island, as we saw in April. The clock is ticking, and many of us are doing what we can to aid the professionals who will be at the front lines of this summer's storm response.

As dire as things are in Puerto Rico, we are clinging to threads of hope. One such thread is the potential of public health. The skills I'm developing and the resources I now have access to can change things for the people suffering the most.

Another thread is the first-gen community here at Michigan, which has been a source of affirmation throughout my time here. When I first arrived in Michigan, I felt uneasy, unsure of what to expect. And that sense of unease was magnified when Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit Puerto Rico shortly after I had left. But at the school's opening first-gen gathering, I knew I had found peers facing similar challenges. Like me, they were far from home and from families and were the first in their families to attend a large and world-renowned institution.

Having a space to express myself, to be vulnerable and still feel secure, to be surrounded by like-minded individuals—that support has been invaluable. The Michigan Public Health community and the entire university acknowledge that first-generation students face certain unique challenges. Emphasis is placed on helping us bridge the gap, however we define that gap. Activities developed for first-generation students help us understand others and ourselves, which gives us the freedom to focus on our studies and the important work at hand.

Those of us connected to Puerto Rico have heavy hearts and heavy minds right now. But in our work and in this community, we are able to maintain a sense of optimism.

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