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Engaging communities, promoting health equity

Senior Tatiana Aguilar will apply HDFS skills and experiences in CDC internship
HDFS student Tatiana Aguilar

Since middle school, Tatiana Aguilar’s career goal has been to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That goal was a result of her experiences volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club in Charlotte as a teen. Aguilar said that many of the members she worked with were first-generation immigrant youth who lived in public housing or were from underrepresented communities.

“As a Boys and Girls Club volunteer, I realized that for many of the youth and families we served, access to health resources and services was a privilege, not a right,” Aguilar said. “This sparked my interest in health promotion and health equity.”

Turning her dream into a reality has been years in the making, and this summer, Aguilar, a senior in the UNC School of Education’s Human Development and Family Studies program focusing on child health, will begin to fulfill that dream as a Project Imhotep intern.

Project Imhotep is Morehouse College’s 11-week, residential internship program in collaboration with the CDC. The program aims to increase the knowledge and skills of underrepresented students in biostatistics, epidemiology, and occupational safety and health.

Interns work with the CDC full-time from May through August, with a one-on-one mentorship. Interns receive a stipend, and by the end of the internship, they will have co-authored a paper for a scientific journal.

Seeking a major for community engagement

Aguilar began her time at UNC-Chapel Hill with neuroscience as her declared major. It wasn’t until her junior year that she decided to pivot. Aguilar realized she needed a major that would enable her to engage with members of the community. So, she switched her major to Human Development and Family Studies.

The Human Development and Family Studies program is an interdisciplinary pre-professional program that prepares Carolina undergraduates for careers or graduate programs in human services, counseling, allied health, and education. Students develop knowledge and skills to advocate for the well-being of children, youth, and families in diverse contexts.

“[Human Development and Family Studies] is a program that merges research, health, education, and human services, which are all aspects I wanted out of a program,” Aguilar said. “This degree can help take me anywhere I want to go in the future.”

Aguilar, who graduates in May, believes this opportunity will help her further thrive in learning about health equity.

“The intensive training that is provided by Project Imhotep will prepare me for professional public health research,” she said. “I look forward to establishing a network at the CDC.”

Mentorship fuels career possibilities 

Within the Human Development and Family Studies program, Aguilar has worked in Dorothy Espelage’s, Ph.D., RAVE Lab — which stands for Research Addressing Violence in Education — where she participated in research centered on making schools physically and psychologically safe for all students. Aguilar relied on the mentorship she received inside RAVE Lab, as well as in her classes, to be able to make this internship possible.

“This internship would not have happened without the mentorship that [Human Development and Family Studies program director] Helyne Frederick [Ph.D.] provided along with the intimate setting provided in this program,” Aguilar said. “You just don’t have that in every program at UNC, and it has been pivotal to my success in HDFS and beyond.”

In the months following her internship at the CDC, Aguilar will begin a Master of Public Health program in health behavior or health education and hopes to culminate her education with a Ph.D. in health behavior.