USF College of Public Health alumna Ercilia Calcano, grew up going to elementary school with half a notebook and a third of a pencil. She lived in a two-bedroom home with no running water or electricity among her 10 siblings in the Dominican Republic.
Despite that, she said her home was full of care and support.
“I was taught compassion for others, ethical values, hard work and the power of faith and spirituality,” Calcano said.
At age nine she embarked to the capital city, Santo Domingo, where she served as a maid in a relative’s home for four years. During her teen years, she got involved in church and civic organizations fueling her public health passion of helping to keep her community safe.
In 1990 she came to the U.S. as part of an international scholarship program from the U.S. Agency for International Development that promoted world peace.
As a cultural ambassador, she promoted Dominican culture, while learning English and working toward an associate’s degree in business management at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wis., before returning back to the Dominican Republic.
“When I was still living in the Dominican Republic, some COPH faculty members used to go or take students there to do research or health education projects. I started volunteering in things like helping to arrange student housing, engaging local entities and people, translating for researchers, etc. Then, I started enjoying the type of work that the faculty and students did and inquired about it,” she said.
Bringing her passion for a healthy community into the U.S., Ercilia returned to college, this time at USF to obtain a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and master’s degree in public health from the Department of Community and Family Health.
She secured a part-time job as a research assistant in the COPH and continued to volunteer in projects all over the U.S. and Latin America.
“As a COPH student back in the days, my proudest accomplishment was planning and implementing the Youth Risk Behavior Survey among 4,455 students nationwide in the Dominican Republic,” she said.
With the help of Dr. Wayne Westhoff, former associate professor in Global Health, and under the leadership of Dr. Carol Bryant, Calcano’s former advisor and distinguished USF Health professor, she worked with a university in Puerto Rico to obtain the Spanish version of the instrument to be used in the Dominican Republic.
“As a result of the survey, a new education manual was developed and placed in the schools called ‘Educación en Valores’ (educating on life’s values). Later, national partnerships were developed through formal agreements, and the first domestic violence shelter of the Dominican Republic was launched,” Calcano said.
Her work in promoting health expands across her career.
She went on to work with a southern U.S. workgroup panel to discuss strategies to reduce health disparities in the U.S., led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
She’s one of the founding members of the non-profit organization Fundación Familia Sana, an organization that has helped link students and professors from USF with public health needs in several Latin American countries including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico.
She led efforts to obtain almost $7 million in federal funding that created several of the current nutrition and physical activity programs and educational enhancements seen in Hillsborough County schools and community-based organizations.
Calcano has also been responsible for more than 20 coalitions, partnerships and boards established to address community health and social issues, as well as promote cultural traditions.
But, her efforts against tobacco are some of her proudest achievements in public health.
She’s served as a panel member for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss tobacco control among Latinos living in the U.S. and helped to pass an ordinance keeping tobacco products behind counters in stores and the passage of a constitutional amendment for restaurants and indoor facilities to become smoke-free.
“I’m proud not only because of the outcome, but because of the process,” she said. “During that time we developed around 3,000 Hillsborough county youth as ‘Advocates of Change’ to rebel against the tobacco industry’s tactics to attract them to use their products. They fought like an army unwilling to lose, they were warriors, fierce, willing to challenge all oppositions, and willing to go to the most remote areas of the county to get a few voters’ signatures, and all in the name of public health. This youth-empowerment approach helped to reduce tobacco use by 50 percent and 35 percent respectively among Florida’s middle and high school students.”
Calcano is currently serving as a social and behavioral researcher in the Department of Child and Family Studies at the USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.
She’s the assistant director of the NIDA-funded Institute for Translational Research Education in Adolescent Drug Abuse at USF, a collaborative effort between the CBCS and COPH.
“It is an extremely rewarding job,” she said. “First, the team is great and very cohesive. I love the fact that I’m able to use the skills I gained in each of my degrees: business management, anthropology, and public health. The mix of being a manager while also contributing to helping communities implement evidence-based interventions, all while helping develop students in community-based research and contribute to reducing health disparities is an amazing combination,” she said.
Calcano’s work to promote the health of the community, particularly her efforts among Latinos, was recognized by the USF Latin Community Advisory Committee and she was selected for the 2016 Pathways Award in October.
The award is given to USF staff to acknowledge their contributions to the betterment of Latinos, according to the award announcement.
“Earning the Pathways award meant that people within USF acknowledge and appreciate the importance of creating pathways for Latinos,” she said. “Also, it’s rewarding for me to see that USF sees me as someone who gives the Latino community a voice by serving as liaison between USF and Hispanics in the outside community.”
The award is issued by an external advisory committee to the USF president, and there is only one staff selected each year.
“Engaging Latinos in public health programs has always been a challenge to several researchers and educators. Publications after publications show the efforts of the scientific community to find effective strategies to reach Latinos,” Calcano said. “Breaking the barriers of ‘fear and trust’ are key to reach that community. It’s rewarding for me to feel trusted by several Latino-serving entities within USF and in the outside community. I get excited when I learn that my work in this area has benefited USF researchers and educators attempting to reach such community.”
Calcano described her public health practice as being the change she wants to see.
“My public health passion is to influence policies in favor of children’s health and to share knowledge,” she said. “I want to see others succeed because of my work.”
Fast Five for COPH Alumni:
What did you dream of becoming when you were young?
An injustice news reporter (to report injustices and advocate for change).
Where would we find you on the weekend?
1) In a park playing with a group of children getting them to exercise & laugh, 2) at home or in a restaurant spending quality family time, and/or 3) at church coordinating activities to engage children.
What is the last book you read or are currently reading?
“A Purpose-driven Life,” by Rick Warren.
What superpower would you like to have?
The power to hit the “undo key” in life (e.g. un-say something that has already been said).
What’s your all-time favorite movie?
“The Pursuit of Happiness.”
Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health
Tags: College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, Department of Community and Family Health, Ercilia Calcano, Hispanic/Latino, Pathways Award, Translation Research Education in Adolescent Drug Abuse, USF Latin Community Advisory Committee