As a first-generation Latina student pursuing her Ph.D. in public health at UCI, Connie Valencia studies the health disparities and equity among low-income Latino communities, especially in Southern California.
This daughter of Mexican immigrant parents grew up in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which hugs the eastern side of downtown Los Angeles, where she wants to gain a better understanding of the Latino immigrant experience through her own education.
“[School] really helped me understand more of the things related to my culture, my family, my parents, my historical background and even some of the socioeconomic factors driving immigration,” she says, “I feel like by having that background, I’m able to understand more of the aspects of public health.”
Prior to her time as an Anteater, Valencia received her bachelor’s degree from UCLA, where she majored in psychobiology and minored in Chicana & Chicano studies. She later attended Cal State Fullerton, where she obtained her master’s degree in public health.
Originally, Valencia planned to attend medical school to become a physician. However, she found a passion for the social aspects intertwined with medical health and decided she would be able to do more in terms of social services through public health.
Valencia’s work focuses on addressing the social determinants of health while simultaneously focusing on community needs. She is committed to understanding the experiences that Latinos have as residents in a community and how that experience affects their health. These interests stem from experiences she and her own family experienced while living in Boyle Heights.
“I want to make sure that I can address some of the issues that are impacting low-income Latino communities, so hopefully they won’t go through the same struggles that me and my family went through,” she says.
For her dissertation, Valencia is conducting a project in Boyle Heights that focuses on the intersection of health equity and environmental justice. She hopes to understand the relationship between cultural institutions and air pollution in California. By looking at the air pollution in Boyle Heights – site of the East LA Interchange, where an average of 430,000 vehicles travel daily on the 5, the 10, the 60 and 101 freeways – she will assess the factors that affect civic engagement in environmental issues among Latino residents.
Valencia is the recipient of a Campus-Community Research Incubator Grant, which supports research-oriented projects between community organizations and researchers at the UCI. Through the grant, Valencia and her advisor, assistant professor of public health Brittany Morey, have partnered with Legacy LA, a non-profit for Latin-youth organization based in Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights.
“As I’m talking to people more about this, they realize that maybe it is where they live,” she says, “Sometimes, we see things, but we don’t question them in terms of ‘How does this affect my health?’ And I think that’s something that we need to do a lot more.”
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