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From foster care to public health changemakers

A conversation with 2024 grads Joel Rubio and Julie Grassian

Berkeley Public Health: Can you please introduce yourself and let us know your concentration here at UC Berkeley School of Public Health?

Joel Rubio: My name is Joel (he/him/el), and I will be graduating this spring (2024) with a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration in Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health.

Julie Grassian: My name is Julie (she/her), and I am completing the dual degree Master of Public Health/Master of Social Welfare program at UC Berkeley. In my MPH program, I am in the Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health program.

What motivated you to pursue an MPH?

JG: Less than 4% of foster youth obtain a four-year college degree. And less than 1% go on to receive a masters degree. These statistics are my lived experiences, as I identify as a former foster youth who has completed not one, but two masters degrees.

Foster youth in particular are not always represented in public health research, and are not a population that are highlighted in MCAH. Given my background, I am motivated to change that, and ensure that foster youth’s needs and experiences are highlighted in research moving forward.

I am particularly motivated in addressing foster youth’s complex mental health needs and ensuring that their needs are met in culturally receptive, trauma-informed and grief-informed ways. Not only this, but ensuring that foster youth have the resources necessary to succeed in higher education, and have continued, uninterrupted mental health support throughout their academic journey. This is what I really needed growing up, but did not receive.

Being a foster youth, plus not receiving mental health support, made navigating higher education very challenging for me. My experiences are what inspired me to focus my public health capstone research on the relationship between mental health and higher education among foster youth. I hope to continue to fill the gap in much needed foster youth research.

JR: Growing up in an impoverished community in Los Angeles, I have witnessed social injustice, systemic discrimination, and the stigmatization of marginalized communities. As an adolescent, I did not comprehend why the Latine undocumented community suffered from institutional racism set by various immigration barriers. Then, at the age of 17, a traumatic event unfolded that would soon shape my entire life: the deportation of both my parents. While my story is unique, it is a common issue that many members of the Latine immigrant community fear.

The profound impact of immigration enforcement policies on the mental health of Latine adolescents becomes evident when considering heightened risk factors, including the distressing experience of having a family member detained or facing deportation. I have made it my mission to prioritize the safety of immigrant communities by combating racial injustices embedded in our U.S. immigration policies. I decided to pursue an MPH degree to explicitly address the anti-immigrant policies of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in the hope of shifting the perception of immigration enforcement from a political issue to a public health crisis.

What was the one thing that happened during your teens that inspired you to pursue higher education?

JG: Joining my hometown’s Boys & Girls Club was by far the reason I was able to pursue and succeed in higher education. I joined their College Bound program, hoping to get guidance on what it meant to pursue higher education. The director of the program became my biggest advocate and mentor, and truly made me believe that I was capable and worthy of higher education. She helped me with the application process, finding scholarships (I ended up getting a full ride to UCLA! [as an undergraduate]), and connecting me with a variety of mentors. Being first-gen and former foster youth, having these experiences were invaluable.

JR: Thanks to TRIO and the Educational Talent Search (ETS), a federally funded college opportunity program, my dream of attending a four-year university became a reality. The staff’s unwavering support and guidance transformed my perspective on higher education. From college advisement to application assistance, they helped me navigate every step of the process and provided me with the financial support to apply to college.

However, the field trips to various universities truly brought my dream of going to college to life. The experience of stepping into the different campuses, witnessing student life, and talking to college students and faculty was monumental, solidifying my determination to pursue higher education, especially as a first-generation student who had never stepped foot on a college campus.

What are some of your most memorable moments at BPH?

JR: Exchanging casual hellos during lectures, engaging with one of our vibrant student organizations, such as Alianza and MCAH Student Interest Group (SIG), sharing late-night study sessions on the second or fifth floor, fueled by snacks from the DREAM Office or the warm and cozy soups from Quin and Ché.

JG: The connections I have made with my MCAH faculty and cohort have been amazing! Also, the DREAM office has been invaluable to my experience. Being a part of the DREAM summer seminar helped with the transition to graduate school and feeling like I belonged at BPH.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.