Alumna forges a clinical research career helping Spanish-speakers

Story by Misty Bouse. Photos by James Hill.

Yareli Cornejo Torres with instructor Alissa Leavitt.

Yareli Cornejo Torres with her health studies instructor Alissa Leavitt.

In 2018, Portland Community College Health Studies alum Yareli Cornejo Torres of Hillsboro graduated with an associate degree after participating in a life-altering undergraduate research training program on the Rock Creek Campus.

The BUILD EXITO Program, now in its final year, is a collaboration between PCC, Portland State University and Oregon Health & Science University, for underrepresented students with an interest in biomedical, public health and social science research careers. BUILD EXITO identified many students, including Cornejo Torres, early in their college careers to engage them in finding solutions to today’s major health problems, and she now works at OHSU.

She took a moment from a busy OHSU clinic work day to chat with us:

Tell us about your educational background?

Cornejo Torres: I have an associate degree in Health Studies from PCC and a Bachelor of Science in Public Health, with a Community Health Education concentration, and a minor in Women’s Studies from PSU. I am the first one in my family to graduate from college.

As an undergraduate student in the STEAM field, I was able to connect to a research program for students who have been excluded from research opportunities in the past. The BUILD EXITO program helped me to learn about the research process, do my own research study at the Mexican consulate, and obtain a job at OHSU.

Why did you pick PCC, and what made it special for you?

Cornejo Torres: When I first visited PCC as a high school senior, I wasn’t sure where I was going to continue my education. I felt really stressed-out at the time because I didn’t know what I was going to do, and a lot of my classmates already had a university lined up. After I took my first tour with the Oregon Leadership Institute (a PCC and Portland metro high school collaboration aimed at helping students learn about higher education opportunities, leadership and cultural identity), which included visiting the centers at the Rock Creek Campus, then, I felt some relief knowing that I could be a student in the fall.

Yareli Cornejo Torres

Cornejo Torres said using PCC’s student resources and services helped her succeed.

In high school I was still discovering majors and career options. One of my mentors mentioned public health, and I started to look into majors, specifically in community health. As a high school student, I began volunteering: providing childcare for community events, attending immigrant rights functions and canvasing. I wanted to connect these passions with my career and stumbled across community health education courses at PCC. I decided that I wanted to take my 100- and 200-level public health courses at PCC, so that I could transfer and obtain a public health degree with a community health education concentration.

Did you have challenges getting where you are now?

Cornejo Torres: I started kindergarten not speaking any English. My parents and I were learning how to navigate the education system. From a young age, I struggled with school, specifically with math and science courses.  So, I didn’t see myself graduating high school or college. However, once I got into high school, I was able to surround myself with students and a couple of teachers who believed in me. They allowed me to see myself in a science role.

How did being the first in your family to attend college affect you?

Cornejo Torres: As a first-generation college student, I dealt  with a lot of anxiousness and felt like I shouldn’t be part of higher education. There were times when I struggled with balancing my school, family and work environments. I had to learn how to say “no” and be able to prioritize myself. I also felt like I didn’t belong in higher education because I felt like a lot of the time I was one of the only students that looked like me in my math and science classes. Being able to find motivation and also give myself grace for not passing certain tests, or having to retake classes, was also really important.

What kind of support did you received at PCC, and how did it make a difference?

Cornejo Torres: As a student, I was really involved specifically when it came to student leadership. I was a mentor for the Oregon Leadership Institute – a program hosted by the Multicultural Center and a confidential advocate at the Women’s Resource Center. Being involved allowed me to be aware of all of the types of support we have available and also to not feel alone. I was able to share my anxiousness when it came to certain courses and felt supported and heard by my peers and colleagues.

How well did PCC prepare you for university?

Cornejo Torres: I think that oftentimes students who attend community college, or apply, are often dismissed and are told that the education level is not rigorous. However, I believe that the amount of career options, and cost is more accessible than our state schools.

In addition, I think that our health program is really well-organized when it comes to being able to transfer the health classes we take at PCC to state universities like PSU. Furthermore, being able to take courses in an environment that is supportive, especially with being able to have smaller class sizes and to be able to meet with instructors is immensely important.

What advice would you give to PCC students?

Cornejo Torres: Use all of the resources that you have available. As students we are paying for our classes, student resource centers, etc. Make sure that you utilize resources such as tutoring, the library printers, and renting textbooks from the Women’s Resource Centers. Make sure you not only use those but advocate for yourself.

If you are struggling, make sure that you look for support!

What do you enjoy about your work?

Cornejo Torres: When it comes to health research, participation often excludes folks that are non-English speakers. So, being able to introduce health research and eliminate barriers to participation is vital towards inclusivity. I had been working as a senior clinical research assistant at the Women’s Health Research Unit. I’ve recently transitioned into a new OHSU role providing appropriate resources in our first language. Working as a behavioral health resource specialist for our patients at OHSU Family Medicine at Richmond, a Federally Qualified Health Center. This means that when they voice a resource need or concern, a provider identifies it, or the patient notes it down in their social determinants of health form. Then, I provide resources. It makes me feel like I am able to connect, especially with the Spanish-speaking community. Now, I am the social work side of the clinic providing help.

What comes next?

Cornejo Torres: I want to obtain a dual degree at the OHSU School of Public Health for both a master’s in Epidemiology and Social Work at PSU. Eventually, I would like to work in a hospital setting and provide resources to patients, and to be able to replicate similar resources and extend them to households across the country.

Thank you Yareli!