Alumni Spotlight: Monica Huelga, MPH
In celebration of our Graduate Programs in Public Health’s successful CEPH reaccreditation, we sat down with Monica Huelga, MPH ’18, who found herself at UNE Online rather serendipitously. Monica is passionate about the power of communication to promote global health and equality. She completed her applied practice experience on environmental health literacy at the non-profit MEarth Carmel while working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Congratulations again on graduating last year! What inspired you to go for your MPH in the first place?
I’ve always been drawn to health and distance studies. I received my undergrad from University of Washington in medical anthropology and global health, and I was trying to look at health in the bigger picture, the cultural perspective of it.
Smack dab in the middle of undergrad while I was transferring to another university, I went abroad on Semester at Sea. It was amazing. I got to see Ghana and Morocco. To see things like that first-hand—it gives you more depth than I could acknowledge. After that, I wanted to find out what I could do on a global health basis.
I started looking for my master’s while working in a clinical setting as a health coach. I was feeling rewarded on a day-to-day basis, but I was also seeing continuous systemic failure for the patients—lack of empathy, lack of education, inequity in getting care. I started getting drawn into the public health sector. I didn’t want to go into something traditional, I wanted to do something a little more abstract where I could make more of an impact.
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How did you choose UNE?
I wanted an online program for flexibility, so I could be with my family—to move where my job took me, or where my fiancées’ job took us. I gravitated towards that first of all.
Then I was immediately sparked by UNE’s slogan, “innovation for a healthier planet.” I really connected with the perspective of wanting to do something for a bigger impact. Through Semester at Sea, I did a little bit of studying in Ghana and Morocco [UNE has a campus in Morocco and has offered study abroad opportunities in Ghana in the past] and that also touched me, that special connection.
There were quite a few points! It felt like a right fit in the right time of my life.
I see that you work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is an incredible institution (check out their otter conservation efforts!). What do you do for work there?
As a Digital Fundraising Specialist, I work mainly online through digital channels for member and donor communications and fundraising efforts, since we’re a nonprofit. It’s about creating and cultivating a larger community for conservation efforts.
Just recently, within the last couple of years, the aquarium shifted their mission to inspire conservation of the oceans to conservation of the ocean, captivating the idea of that we’re all connected. Whether it be in the deep sea or the mountains, we’re all going to be impacted. Some of our major topics are reducing plastic waste as well as plastic production, moving towards reusable products in general, and how we can make an impact on a greater scale.
We just expanded our education program. We’re really working on stuff for schoolchildren and donors to learn about ecosystems, habitats and how humans play a role, often through environmental literacy.
Speaking of which, your final MPH practicum presentation was titled “Improving Environmental Health Literacy in California Youth Through Curriculum Integration.” Could you explain your inspiration for the project and the main takeaways?
I was originally looking at nutrition and how we can cultivate healthier communities through it, then so many sparks happened seeing the basic MPH coursework and by talking to faculty. I found my interests expanding and it just serendipitously fell into place!
I completed my applied practice experience at a local non-profit called MEarth Carmel. My main thought process behind the project was integrating environmental health literacy–which shows how humans are impacted by the environment–with children’s curriculums. Instead of being a one-off topic, it should be an everyday conversation, so it doesn’t seem as abstract. It should be more of the norm to look at the impact of the environment on an everyday basis, to have it integrate into the dominant culture.
I worked to consolidate their lesson plans and research best practices for environmental and nutritional lesson plans/field trips. They do a great job of integrating important messaging in the curriculum, similar to the Aquarium, while making learning fun for children, which is so important!
Part of my role at Monterey now is to communicate or to reach out to different populations, whether they’re a member, supporter, or donor. As a team, we really help craft appropriate messages so we can share the needs of the Aquarium and the environment. My capstone focused on the communications part and the importance of those communications at a young age especially.
Back at the Aquarium, they have coursework on environmental literacy (which is more about environmental challenges and ecosystems than the human impact found in environmental health literacy) for specific age groups and are going to be introducing climate change coursework in a different framework for 4th and 5th graders. They understand the development stages and won’t introduce fear around climate change issues at that point.
The UNE coursework and my work at both MEarth and the Aquarium align with my passion. It’s something I definitely appreciate with this whole experience: having the coursework knowledge to build off of my passion, and finding work where I can amplify these messages further.
Read more: What is the difference between Applied Practice Experience (APE) and the Practicum?
How do you apply the knowledge and skills you learned in your MPH to your work?
In fundraising, we get to touch all the programs, including policy and education, and I can apply those ideas there.
For policy, we address both California state and federal policy. By working in the depths of the political climate, we see how we can play a role in that, what aligns with our values, and how we can transform the system at that level.
For education, there’s a lot of different technologies and expanding programs in our new education center. There’s a virtual reality program where you can go on dives to see how, if one thing changes in an ecosystem, what happens to the rest. Especially in our technological and visual era, they’re able to see it rather than just learn it in a classroom, and they can relate to it at that level. We want to be a fun, exciting place to do that!
My role is to gather the community to support having these things happen, and then I get to learn alongside everyone else, too.
What are your goals for the future (career or personal)?
Similar to how I got into the MPH program, I let myself get distracted by different passions. I’m itching for a doctorate, but I’m going to see where life takes me first. Learning is a journey, not a destination. I’m super happy with where I’m landing.
What would you want a potential student to know before starting this program?
I would say stay open-minded! At one point, I was kind of struggling a little bit, trying to figure out how can I relate this to food and nutrition? because I was so focused on the endgame of what I thought I wanted. When I allowed different courses and projects that didn’t necessarily align with what I thought I wanted from an MPH to guide me, that helped me find opportunities and value in the process.
Also, take advantage of the weekly discussion boards. Allow conversations to happen. I feel like that can be missed in an online program, but I thought it was really neat and unique. There are so many out-of-the-box opportunities with online education.
Imagine yourself here! If you’re thinking about the impact you could make by earning your MPH, take the first step now by downloading the guide to our online Graduate Programs in Public Health:
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