Impact: When passion and purpose come together

From working at a crisis center and helping people formerly incarcerated to supporting marginalized communities and centering their voices — Health Studies alumni from the University of Washington Bothell prove that ordinary people with commitment can make an extraordinary impact on the world.

“I went into this field because I wanted to make a difference,” said 2022 alumnus Calvin Trinh. “Being of service to people is what motivates me to continue doing what I do, even when it’s hard.”

Not only are these alumni committed to their communities, but they are also committed to UW Bothell students who follow after them. Nearly a dozen alumni recently participated in a virtual panel with faculty from the School of Nursing & Health Studies, offering advice and explaining to students how they use their degrees.

Support services

One such alumnus was Trinh, who majored in Health Studies and in Community Psychology. He now works as a forensic mental health clinician at Sound Health, one of King County’s providers of mental health and addiction treatment services.

Calvin Trinh (Health Studies, Community Psychology ’22)

Trinh works with individuals who have been incarcerated and are trying to reintegrate back into the community. He makes sure they take their medications and meet with their parole officers, and, when appropriate, he speaks with their friends and family to help them reconnect.

Trinh said his background in psychology complements his health studies degree because many of the people he works with have mental health disorders.

“I see a lot of people who suffer from something psychological, whether it’s mania, depression or schizophrenia,” he said. “Because of their mental illness, their bodies suffer, too. They often don’t eat, sleep or drink well.

“Making sure they are emotionally regulated is the first step, and I notice that when their mental health improves, so does their overall health.”

Care in crisis

Trinh’s passion for mental health led him to pursue an additional job at Crisis Connections, a nonprofit organization in Seattle dedicated to supporting people through mental health crises. As the crisis intervention specialist, he oversees phone workers on the helpline, checks the database for those who may fall under the Involuntary Treatment Act, and works alongside police and firefighters to try to get the appropriate resources for individuals who are severely struggling.

While at UW Bothell, Trinh worked with Dr. Jody Early, professor in the School of Nursing & Health Studies and co-creator of Mental Health Matters. “Everything clicked for me when I started working in that program,” Trinh said. “It made me realize my calling.”

Through Mental Health Matters, a partnership with Verdant Health Commission, Trinh was trained to see the warning signs for suicide as well as how to reach people with empathy and to communicate effectively — all skills imperative to master in his career. “I think suicide has a lot of stigma, and before Mental Health Matters, it felt uncomfortable for me to even say the word out loud,” he said.

“Looking back, becoming comfortable with talking about suicide was hugely important considering the jobs that I have now. Equally important, though, was learning about emotional support and how to talk to people without judgment, criticism or blame, and just make sure that they feel comfortable opening up and receiving support.

“The training I gained through this program,” he said, “has made me the professional I am today.”

Preparatory programs

Like Trinh, alumna Marisol Bejarano (Health Studies ’20) said what prepared her most for her career was participating in a community-based learning program. For Bejarano, that was the Latino Leadership Initiative. Created by the Latino Educational Training Institute, a long-time partner of the University, the LLI promotes leadership development and community engagement among young Latinos in Washington.

Marisol Bejarano (Health Studies ’20)

“Working with LETI made me realize how much I enjoy working with community and bringing people together through events,” she said. “When the program ended, I decided to start volunteering at LETI, and shortly after I was offered a full-time, paid staff position.”

Bejarano was first hired as the coordinator for Health and Wellness Programs and ran it on her own. Now, she is the director and oversees a team of 12. “We have grown a lot,” she said, “and I was able to establish a lot of the program development and train most everyone on our team.”

She also said she felt well prepared for this position because of the holistic view of health and health care she gained at UW Bothell.

Holistic health

Bejarano specifically remembers Public Health 101 taught by Dr. Grace Lasker, teaching professor and director of Health Studies. “I took that class my second quarter at UW Bothell, and I just remember thinking yes, I am in the right place. This is the impact I want to make.”

For the class final, she wrote a paper on the social determinants of health and now applies what she learned in her work at LETI. “There are all these characteristics that help a person be well, like rent assistance, for example. You may not think of rent as being related to health or health care, but that financial stability really does make a change in the way people feel, mentally and emotionally,” she said.

“Even education is related to health because if you get a better education, you’re going to have a better job, live in a better area and be able to take better care of yourself. It’s all interconnected — and that’s why in my position I really push for education resources and financial assistance because health is so vast.”

At LETI, Bejarano helped to create a series of classes for community members, including GED classes in Spanish, business development, women’s health and more. Additionally, she aided in the creation of a rent assistance program for those who are struggling financially.

“I am so grateful for the education and support I received at UW Bothell. I now have the ability to pay it forward through LETI,” she said. “It’s been an extremely rewarding career.”

Critical conversations

Alumna Anny Smith (Health Studies ’19) also uses her degree to support her community as the human services coordinator for the city of Kirkland. Smith was a non-traditional student, returning to college after working as a registered nurse for more than 10 years.

Anny Smith (Health Studies ’19)

“Not only was I decades older than most other students in my classes, but I am also a woman of color. Coming back into this academic setting was, to some extent, pretty intimidating,” she said. “Dr. Early was a huge support, always reminding me that I could do it, even though at times I felt I couldn’t.”

Not only did Smith graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the Health Studies program, but she then went on to receive a master’s in social work from the UW in Seattle along with a nonprofit certificate from the UW’s Evans School of Business. “I had no intention of going beyond my bachelor’s degree,” Smith said. “When I applied for the graduate program, I was just about 50 and thought no way I could do it — but I had such incredible professors who encouraged me to keep going, so I did.”

Now, community outreach is a focal point of Smith’s work, getting to know people at nonprofits, small businesses and BIPOC organizations. “I was taught the importance of centering community and centering voices early on in my health studies classes,” Smith said. “Dr. Early was great at modeling how to build meaningful relationships and engage with folks in important conversations.”

Smith said having this background was essential as she now uses these skills daily. “Oftentimes communities of color are treated like a monolith. People often believe that if they talk to one person of color, then they know everything,” she said. “Of course this isn’t the case, and I am working to reprogram our systems and strategies so that we can engage with communities, build relationships and create a safe environment for community members to express their needs.”

People power

Smith’s minor in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies also supports her success, giving her the ability to voice concerns when individuals or communities are being treated unfairly. “There are many different disparities across health, gender, sexuality and race,” she said. “This minor enabled me to see those disparities more clearly as well as the confidence to advocate for others.”

Prior to working as a registered nurse, Smith had spent many years working as a grocer just to get by. “I was getting paid super low wages, and I just had to keep my head down because I really needed that money, no matter how little it was,” she said. “There were a lot of times my coworkers and I were treated unfairly, but if we said anything we feared we would lose our jobs.

“Now, working in government with a master’s degree, I am finally in a position where I can advocate for myself and for others who are treated unfairly, even when it’s hard and uncomfortable,” Smith said. “It still makes me nervous and it’s scary, but I remember what it was like and know that it’s important.

“It’s definitely been my greatest growth area and something I am really proud of.”

Commitment to community

Although Smith graduated four years ago, she said she still keeps in touch with Early.
“It means a lot that she still reaches out. I still feel supported even after I am gone,” she said, “and I think that’s indicative of the program — the faculty commitment to the students.”

As Trinh also noted, “The support I received in this program was more than I could have imagined. The professors provide so many opportunities, and I highly encourage students to take advantage of them.

“I am so grateful for the education I received and the relationships I was able to build in this program,” he said. “I take the empathy and dedication I was shown in the program and pass it on to the people I serve.”

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