Javier Cervantes may have only just started the Bachelor of Science in Public Health online at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), but he is already putting his education to work.
"I have been working with the AVID program – a college readiness course that teaches kids skills that they can use when they get to college," said Cervantes, a resident of Houston, Texas. "My job position as an AVID tutor is to go in there twice a week and help the kids with whatever they're struggling with."
Cervantes has always had a passion for health, but it took him some time to find a career to match.
"At first, I was going to be a nurse, and when I noticed that there were so many things that could be prevented rather than treated, I decided to start thinking about going into public health," he said. "I also thought about how high school health classes were often taught by a coach, and that led me to think that we need to do something to influence policy change."
Cervantes may have a ways to go before he can position himself to make policy changes, but he is already making an impact in the lives of the sixth to 12th grade students he sees each week.
"I asked them, 'How many of you know what hypertension is?' None of the middle schoolers knew, but one of my high school kids knew what it was because her father was suffering from high blood pressure. I started noticing that the only way we come to know about diseases is when they affect us."
For Cervantes, health education is the key to preventing health problems later in life. He believes that learning how to take care of oneself is just as important as math and science.
"A lot of people feel that they're not learning [in high school] what is necessary to live a functional life," he said. "If we teach kids the importance of washing your hands, of washing your clothes after you go to the hospital, sneezing into your upper arm instead of your hands, we could actually start creating an atmosphere that benefits the overall public health and start lowering the incidence of infection and diseases."
Finding the Path
In September 2019, Cervantes lost his grandfather. He felt a sense of déjà vu when faced again with a similar death in his nursing school clinicals. The experience had Cervantes re-evaluating his career focus and he realized that public health was a better fit for his goals.
"I love the way in which you can help someone out of their lowest state," he said of nursing.
What he did recall from nursing school was learning about diseases, their causes, treatments and methods for prevention.
"Your body is amazing with how it can treat itself. People need to know about this. They need to know how to prevent diseases and actually fight against them."
UTA was a natural choice for Cervantes. He concluded from his research that this online program offered the best in public health education.
"This is the school that's going to challenge me," he said. "Not only that, but the program allows you to create connections with your community, which allows you to make an impact. It opens your eyes to the actual problems that we have in public health."
Cervantes found that programs in the Houston area did not have UTA's rigorous focus on public health, which made going to school online essential to his education.
"It's cheaper than the other schools near me," he said. "Also, I looked up the faculty on RateMyProfessors.com, and it said that the teachers were going to help you."
The professors' willingness to support online students has been one of the most positive of Cervantes' experiences in the program so far.
"Dr. Rebecca L. Garner is the one professor who wants you to succeed," he said. "She will understand everything and truly engage with you. She tells us that we can do this, and she advocates for students' success."
Staying the Course
As a Mexican immigrant, Cervantes wants to secure a future in which he can make a real impact on his community.
"I want to go into teaching first, and then I want to go into an advocacy role," he said. "I need to become an advocate for my people, because no one else is going to. It's scary to live in a world where you don't know if a parent is going to be pulled over and deported, even if they're a good citizen. I want to fight for the health of my people and my students."
Earning a bachelor's degree is going to take a lot of hard work, be it online or in class. Cervantes keeps his spirits up by focusing on his ultimate goal.
"You have to make public health your passion," he said. "Look up videos on issues in your community and see things that might affect your population. Those are things that are going to make you want to stay in the program."
For when the going gets tough, Cervantes has the same advice for his peers as he does for his students.
"Please think about the bigger picture; think about it while you're doing this," he said. "I constantly tell my kids, 'Don't give up. I know it's hard, but don't give up. It's okay to not know, and it's okay to learn."
Learn more about UTA's online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program.
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