The Longhorn Link Program–one of two federal TRIO programs in DDCE–has helped first-generation high school and college student Elena Garcia find her place at The University of Texas and in the world.
When Garcia graduated from the School of Nursing in May with honors, not only did she receive a diploma, but also the Outstanding Undergraduate Student in Nursing award. She will begin her career at University Medical Center Brackenridge in Austin but also envisions her long-term goals centered around social justice issues in health care. Garcia sees herself in nursing for three to five years, then perhaps moving into a research hospital like John Hopkins or into some aspect of public health outside of a critical care setting.
While taking classes and conducting her own research study, Garcia learned about the power that research has on the population and public policy. She explained, “For this reason, I would like to pursue research as part of my career and continue to be an activist to promote justice and decrease health disparities. Although I am not sure exactly what my path will be, I would like to start by exploring public health and policy in graduate school a few years from now.”
Garcia has a long connection with DDCE programs. As a student at Lopez High School in Brownsville, Texas, she was involved in UT Outreach programs before coming to the university. Once here, she became acquainted with the Longhorn Link program during freshman orientation. During her freshman and sophomore years, she explained that the tutoring and mentoring aspects of the program helped her get on track academically. Since then, Garcia has continued to meet with Longhorn Link staff, including DDCE assistant vice president Ge Chen, for advisory sessions.
Garcia values the support and trust offered by the Longhorn Link staff as well as the assistance provided in setting goals. “I’m passionate about advocating for underserved populations because I was surrounded by this environment of support,” she said.
“I learned in public health about the social determinants that affect health,” she said. “Education affects access to care and resources. I want to give back to others and education is one of the most powerful ways to do it.” Because of her intense interest in education, she became a peer mentor with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. “I chose to become a peer mentor my sophomore through junior year because I wanted to be a support system and resource for students that came from a similar background as mine. Being there for those students was one of the most fulfilling experiences on my college career,” Garcia said.
As an honors student in Nursing, Garcia conducted a qualitative research project under Dr. Evelyn Clingerman that was related to the stress and associated health outcomes by Latino farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley. She presented the finding at the St. David’s Centers for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research Conference this past March and at the Longhorn Research Bazaar in April.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Garcia. “My favorite part was interviewing the participants because each person had a great story to share. Listening to their stories of oppression and injustice multiplied my passion to advocate for underserved populations and minorities.”
Garcia also helped found and organize the Hispanic Nursing Association on campus. Under her presidency this year, it has grown from 4 members to 36. She said the organizational process that included drafting the constitution and mission, electing officers and getting others excited about the fledgling organization was a learning process—one made easier by assistance offered through the Dean of Students office. She now feels confident that if she wanted to do so, she could go home to Brownsville and start a new organization related to public health from the ground up.
“I’m so blessed that all these things have happened and that I have opportunity to go back and do these same things in my home community,” Garcia said. “When I came to UT, I was focused on myself. Wanting to make the community better happened through the years as I began to see the bigger picture—that its not just about me.”