Alumni Success Story: Siara Maldonado

Siara Maldonado (she/her/hers) graduated from UConn in May of 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in Global Health with Honors. She is currently pursuing a dual Master’s degree in Social Work and Public Health through the University of Maryland Baltimore and John Hopkins University and working remotely for Mount Sinai’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

What did you study during your undergraduate career and what influenced your decision to pursue that major/program?

I always knew that I wanted to help people. My journey of identity and what my passions are were mainly funneled into a specific area. In high school, I was part of a medical gateways program that provided mentorship for students who wanted to get involved in the healthcare field. The first things I thought of were being a surgeon, doctor, nurse—the careers that everyone readily thinks of. Within my own Latinx family and the pressure of everyone saying “you have to be the next doctor…you have to get it done”, I was like ‘OK, I guess this is what I’ll do’. However, when I got to UConn and I was sitting in those STEM classes, I was like ‘I cannot do this – I am not enjoying myself.’ In one of my classes, we talked about Allied Health Science professions, and we talked about public health which interested me. It’s essentially the intersection of healthcare and medicine with social sciences. As I took more public health-focused courses, I found my main passions in advocating for maternal and child health.

What helped you decide about pursuing a graduate degree and how did you find out about your program?

I knew I wanted to get my Master’s in Public Health because, in the field, you essentially have to in order to get a job. At the end of my sophomore year, I went to a graduate school fair, and as I was talking about my passions and how I want to change the system, the school representative asked me if I had thought about social work. I hadn’t because of some common misconceptions that I had about it. Unfortunately, people have this image of social workers as rundown individuals buried in stacks and stacks of case files who get very little pay. I had never really taken the time to really look into it, but the representative broke down what social work is—which is the advocacy of all people. That’s a super simple definition of social work, but as a social worker, you’re committed to addressing all inequities. So, I was like ‘hello, duh, why wouldn’t I want to get a dual degree in social work and public health?!’

Please share two or three noteworthy internships, co-curricular activities, volunteer experiences, jobs, programs, or other degrees and certifications acquired that contributed to your current success.

I interned with Southwestern AHEC, Inc. in 2020, which is a community-based health organization in Shelton, CT. I helped them with creating different types of COVID-19 informational resources and materials for them to post on their website. I also helped create a health education curriculum that addresses domestic violence and how to address different topics such as sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the context of being a healthcare provider. That curriculum was in collaboration with the Center for Family Justice and Fairfield University. This experience was a big thing for me because this was my first public health-specific experience, and it made me want to get involved in macro-level work. This summer, I also interned with the Greater New York Hospital Association through their Summer Enrichment Program. Through this program, they match you with one of the partnering hospitals they work with based on your interests and the needs of the hospital. I was matched with Mount Sinai and their Office of Diversity and Inclusion. I was super excited and jumped at the opportunity. In this six-week program, I conducted a gap analysis for the Phillips School of Nursing, identifying how they can move forward with a diversity and inclusion focus. They offered me an indefinite part-time internship so that I could work on the projects I wanted. I have definitely strengthened my professional and administrative skills in this role.  

 How has being a part of the Latinx community impacted your educational experience at UConn? 

Being Latinx at UConn, which is a predominantly white institution (PWI), was a lot for me. Coming in as a freshman, I was coming from a high school that was predominantly Latinx and Black. I thought I was very sure about who I was and how I identified, but UConn forced me to re-evaluate all of that. Being an Honors student and living in Buckley, there were very few people that were in the same space as I was in terms of how assured I was in my cultural identity. There were individuals who identified as Latinx but may not have necessarily been as in touch with their cultural heritage as I was. So, there was a sense of feeling alone, but when I found PRLACC, I found my home. I found my family. Without PRLACC and the people that I have met through the center, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I feel like the Latinx community at UConn provided me with this support system that I didn’t know that I needed, and it allowed me to grow into the leader I am today. They equipped me with the skills to be able to articulate what I was passionate about. The cultural climate at UConn is not great, but through the support of PRLACC and my friends within that space, I was encouraged to want to organize and mobilize groups and advocate for change. You know, disrupting these spaces with university admin and telling them how it is.

Are there any other identities you want to highlight that had an impact on your educational experience here at UConn?

Being a bisexual woman at UConn was hard to navigate in terms of how I show up in different spaces, especially since it is a PWI. But, to the point that I was trying to make earlier, if you have something to say, say it, and if somebody tries to stop you from advocating for what you believe in, you have every right to speak up. In the latter half of my undergraduate career, there was a lot more organizing that was going on on-campus. A lot more injustices were being brought to light, for example, like the folks that were recorded saying the N-word. Anti-Semitic symbols were being placed on buildings. Something important to note that I haven’t mentioned yet for incoming students is to give yourself grace. Be patient with yourself. No one is saying that you have to turn into a social justice warrior overnight. That’s not how it works. No one is saying you have to be sure of yourself and who you are overnight. Understand everything is a process and a journey even when it comes to your academic success. Be kind to yourself and you will find your flow and what you’re passionate about.

Please share which groups, organizations, or other resources at UConn contributed to your career success and how. 

Just going back to what I just mentioned about finding my flow, being part of the Student Development Committee within USG provided me with the ability to lead, gain rapport with university admin, and connect me with students on campus who were also passionate about celebrating DEI and promoting student support and success. Within this committee, I helped to co-found the Cultural Appreciation Series within the Undergraduate Student Government to bring awareness towards the beauty in diversity and inclusion on campus and the world at large. These events covered topics such as appreciation vs. appropriation, Native American/Indigenous representation, African roots within Latinx heritage, South Asian representation in the fashion industry, and celebrating Blackness within all cultures. In addition to that involvement, other organizations are PRLACC, AACC, UConn Afro-Latinx, the Puerto Rican Student Association, Ecuadorian Student Association, B.A.I.L.E. (Bringing Awareness to Latino Ethnicities), METAS and Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Señoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority, Inc among others.

Coming into UConn, I knew I was seeking community and support and, while I found that in my PRLACC family, I knew I was seeking something deeper. When it came to discovering SLU, I aligned myself with the organization’s philanthropy, which is literacy. Literacy, honestly, is key and fundamental to everything we do. It is not only being able to just read, but it’s being able to have accessible information and knowledge available to you in a way that you can understand. That’s the root of a lot of issues in the world- the lack of access to information, or on the flip side, someone who does have access to information and is ignorant about it. In relation to the socio-cultural piece, all the Hermanas that I did meet welcomed me with open arms. There are women that I looked up to and aspired to be in regards to how I carried myself and the change that I wanted to make. While we are a Latina-based organization, we aren’t Latinx exclusive, and that was also something that appealed to me. Membership in the organization shaped how I was as a leader. I feel more confident in my ability to speak up for myself and knew that when I walked into a room, without even saying anything, I was going to command a presence because I had every right to be in that space.

Picture Courtesy of Sigma Lambda Upsilon – Alpha Omicron Chapter Facebook

“Membership in [SLU] shaped how I was as a leader. I feel more confident in my ability to speak up for myself and knew that when I walked into a room without even saying anything that I was going to command presence because I had every right to be in that space.”

Please share which groups, organizations, or other resources that are not at UConn contributed to your career success and how. 

I want to highlight the organization that I did my internship with this summer, the Greater New York Hospital Association. I encourage anyone who is looking to get involved in healthcare—whether it be healthcare administration or public health to apply to this program. It was virtual this year, but it is usually in-person in New York City. You get placed with a large hospital and you get more of the healthcare administration side of experience during your time there. I learned so, so much, and now I have a clearer vision of what I want and need to do to achieve my goals moving forward. I also encourage folks who are at UConn to find ways to give back to the surrounding communities. There are a bunch of volunteer organizations that you could get involved with to give back.

What advice would you give to other UConn students who are looking to follow a similar academic and/or career path? 

 Follow your gut and your passions. If you’re passionate about something, follow it; don’t just do what you feel you have to do in life. Even if that means that you were once passionate about something and you feel yourself in need of a pivot. Seek resources and seek a network that can provide you with more insight as to what that role might do or what it might look like to pursue. Again, have grace and be patient for yourself. I cannot say that enough.

By Heidi Pineda
Heidi Pineda DE&I Career Ambassador Program Coordinator