Healthy potential

Name: Melissa Vargas
Major: Public health promotion
Minor: Sociology
Year: Senior
Hometown: Indianapolis, Indiana

She always knew: Melissa never wondered about what she wanted to do. “I’ve always been health oriented, always wanted to care for people, always liked other cultures and international experiences. I always enjoyed volunteer work. A career in public health gives me a way to do all that.” After starting out in pre-med at another institution, her biology and sociology/anthropology courses at Purdue laid the foundation for Melissa’s major.

Family values: Melissa is part of a large, extended family, many of whom live in Peru. “There are two cultures in my life. Peruvian: the way my whole family becomes involved in everything. American: Hard work, perseverance. Combining both has molded me as a person.”

Defining moment: During a recent visit to her parent’s hometown in the remote mountains of Peru, Melissa’s aunt was ill and facing major surgery. Melissa watched as her aunt’s condition worsened from poor medical care and hospitals that lacked such basics as soap, toilet paper, and a sound roof. “It convinced me that I needed to help eliminate health care disparities.”

First-hand experience: Working with the Timmy Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides direct medical assistance and healthcare services to low-income communities, allows Melissa to see how health care education—both internationally and locally—makes a difference. Her Indianapolis-based internship with the foundation includes translating, gathering data about new practitioners, researching countries where the foundation hopes to build partnerships and improving systems for free medical supply distribution.

Fieldwork: “In Ecuador I translated for the doctors and patients. I was able to help them communicate so they could help each other. In Costa Rica, I helped with daycare and basic medical tests. I try to learn what I need to know to be helpful.”

Policy change: Melissa hopes to help improve conditions at home. “Children of illegal immigrants lack basic care and education. They are brought here by their parents and don’t have any choice. It’s a shame.”

Beyond undergrad: Melissa wants to work as an executive director at a health-oriented humanitarian organization. She’ll pursue a master’s degree in public health and international humanitarian action in a program that emphasizes clinical experiences. “Combining the systems I know with the systems I learn will allow me to provide the best care and to address the most disparities.”

By Susan Ferringer