Alum’s immigrant experience inspires his public health passion

| Academic & Student Affairs, Featured News, Monday Letter, Our Alumni

USF College of Public Health (COPH) grad Juan Pablo Sanchez, who earned his BSPH in 2018, began life in Colombia. His family emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Pennsylvania, where Sanchez was raised. As the proud son of a housemaid and a factory worker, Juan Pablo remembers some lean times.

“I grew up in a low-income household,” he said, “but my parents always instilled in me the importance of working hard, being humble and getting an education.”

In his senior year in high school, Sanchez was named a Gates Millennium Scholar (GMS). The GMS program is funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and provides low-income minority students with an opportunity to complete an undergraduate college education in any discipline. Continuing Gates Millennium Scholars may receive funding for a graduate degree in certain areas, including public health. Sanchez is currently pursuing his MPH in global disaster management, humanitarian relief and homeland security at USF. He hopes to continue on to get his doctorate.

Sanchez first became intrigued about health disparities and inequities when he traveled back to Colombia as a child to visit family.

Juan Pablo Sanchez stands near the Capitol while serving as a congressional health care policy intern during his undergraduate years. (Photo courtesy of Sanchez)

“I remember telling my mother that I felt like I was traveling in a spaceship to another world. It was so different. In Colombia, I would stand on my grandma’s balcony and see people standing in long lines at a medical clinic. There was no access to ambulances or urgent care. If you are in a car accident in America—whether you’re in rural Alabama or urban Chicago—an ambulance will be on the way to give you care, whether you have insurance or not. Not in Colombia. No one would come. And even if you did get to a hospital, it might not have the resources to treat you. I was in disbelief that not everyone had access to health care, and all because of the environment they were born into. This is what drew me to public health.”

That interest in public health became a passion after he took his first introductory course in public health his freshman year at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Looking for a larger school with more opportunities, Sanchez transferred to USF for the remainder of his college years.

And there were opportunities aplenty.

Sanchez spent a summer in Washington, D.C., thanks to a program called College to Congress (C2C). C2C, founded by USF alum Audrey Henson, places low-income college students in congressional internships. Sanchez served as health care policy intern with Congresswoman Nanette Barragan, whose district encompasses Los Angeles. He also worked as an oncology technician at Moffitt Cancer Center and did a Semester at Sea, a study-abroad program that allowed him to travel aboard a cruise ship to 15 countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, critically analyzing the health and education systems between developed and undeveloped regions.

“I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but didn’t know what concentration I wanted to focus on. The Semester at Sea experience reassured me of my passion and calling for global health,” Sanchez said.

In addition to pursuing his MPH at USF, Sanchez is also the business development manager of a public health initiative developed by the Kentucky-based Ginn Group Consulting (GGC). The initiative is called SMART (School Health Model for Academics Reaching All Transforming Lives).

Sanchez (back row, second from right), stands with business and community leaders at Kilmer Elementary School in Chicago. The group is celebrating the renovation of the health clinic at the school. (Photo courtesy of Sanchez)

SMART is a school health solution dedicated to improving academic achievement by breaking the cycle of poverty in K-12 schools. The idea is that when students and faculty (as well as their families) have access to health care, academic outcomes improve.

Sanchez serves as a key liaison between GGC’s internal, interdisciplinary team of business, clinical, technical and marketing experts and peer mentors and local stakeholder groups, including educators, medical provider partners and new SMART Team cohorts.

“Access to education and health care gives people hope and the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty,” Sanchez said. “Knowing that the work I do impacts people’s lives by ensuring their wellness so they can pursue an education and follow their dreams makes me proud and gives me purpose. When there are no longer health disparities, that’s the day I will sleep easy.”

COPH Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

A doctor—it’s the only health profession I ever knew about growing up.

Where can we find you on the weekends?

Outdoors—at the beach or doing something active

What is the last book you read?

“Grit,” by Angela Duckworth

What is your all-time favorite movie?

“My Sister’s Keeper”

What superpower would like to have?

Being able to really know someone—know their background, beliefs, culture and religion. That’s so important in the work I do.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health