Going to checkups as a kid, BYU student Paola Piña did most of the talking. Although her parents always went with her, they aren’t fluent in English, so doctors and nurses communicated with her directly. From a young age, Piña also translated for her parents and grandparents at their doctor appointments; when she was 20, she had to be the one to tell her grandmother of a cancer diagnosis.
“In my experience, there’s a huge communication gap between healthcare professionals and Latinos, especially in rural areas,” said Piña, who grew up in San Luis, Arizona, just three miles from the Mexican border.
The needs Piña saw in her hometown motivated her to prepare for a career in healthcare when she came to BYU. Graduating this year with a bachelor’s degree in exercise and wellness and a minor in gerontology, she plans to become a physician assistant specializing in women’s health and wants to work with rural Latino populations.
Piña’s challenges as a first-generation college student refined her vision of the kind of healthcare provider she wants to be. Motivated by her parents, who moved to the U.S. to provide her and her siblings with educational opportunities, Piña can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to attend BYU. But she still faced an uphill climb.
“Coming to college and not knowing anything — how to sign up for classes, which classes I’m supposed to take, what the college experience should be like — caused a lot of stress,” Piña said.
After seeking help from BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services and from student development classes, Piña became interested in studying the relationship between physical and mental health.
“I don’t think Latino culture has fully grasped the importance of mental healthcare,” she said. “If you’re sick, you go to the doctor, but we don’t necessarily go to a counselor for help with a mental health crisis. In the exercise and wellness major, I learned the science — anatomy, biology, physiology — but I put it together with stress management and other kinds of preventative care. I want to implement that combined focus when I’m a healthcare professional in the future.”
For Piña, joining a research group during her senior year was also a critical step in finding her footing at the university. Working with professor Brent Feland, she used ultrasound to study musculoskeletal structures in healthy patients, gathering baseline data for future research on using ultrasound to identify injuries.
“I never thought that a person coming from my background would have the opportunities to do research, to work with people who have these wonderful academic backgrounds,” Piña said. “It’s very inspirational and has helped me to aim for more.”
Wishing she had gotten into research sooner, Piña said she would advise others in her situation to be proactive.
“I didn’t know at first that research was something undergraduates could do. I definitely recommend other first-generation college students to reach out to peer mentors, advisers and professors to let them know that you’re new to this college world and ask for help finding these opportunities.”
Piña’s concern for other students is characteristic: she sees it as a responsibility and a privilege to connect with those who may be marginalized. To that end, a highlight of her undergraduate career was participating in Fiesta, an event sponsored by Multicultural Student Services to showcase Latin American culture through song and dance.
“It was really great to bond with other Latino students, many of whom are also first-generation students, to share our experiences and feel at home,” Piña said. “I did two regional dances from Mexico. I wore the whole costume and everything, and I remember seeing pictures of my mom growing up performing in the same wardrobe. The event was livestreamed, so my parents got to see it at home. I loved representing my culture in a way that made my parents proud.”
Just as Piña has found inspiration from her family, professors and peers throughout her time at BYU, she in turn is an inspiration to others.
“Paola is kind and compassionate and a joy to talk with,” said BYU professor Lance Davidson, one of Piña’s mentors. “An excellent student, she brought a unique perspective to the learning environment in my classroom. She has overcome numerous obstacles to gain a university education that will undoubtedly lead to a fulfilling career as a medical professional. Paola will ‘go forth to serve’ in a way that embodies the mission of this university.”