September 23, 2021

For Reyes, the Goal isn’t to Be a Unicorn, It’s to Show Others What’s Possible

2021 HEALTH POLICY RESEARCH SCHOLAR: The award means "being an inspiration for those who come from your same background. It’s about showing them what's possible," says recipient Angel Reyes, a doctoral student in the School of Community & Global Health.

OXNARD IS A SPRAWLING SEASIDE COMMUNITY north of Los Angeles that some vacationers consider a less expensive alternative to nearby Santa Barbara.

Twenty years ago, when Angel Reyes was growing up there, the city was anything but a vacation destination.

Torn apart by gang violence, the city had a high crime rate and one of the lowest per capita incomes in the county. Homicides and assaults were so bad that city and law enforcement officials sought a civil restraining order against the gangs to curb the violence.

“The gang influence penetrated my junior high school and high school experiences along with family life,” recalls Reyes, a doctoral student in the university’s School of Community & Global Health.

When Reyes was a child, it was common to see people beaten in the streets with baseball bats in retaliation for something or for their money.

“This and more was my daily life,” he said. “Growing up was rough and presented a lot of obstacles that would land you in jail or prison if you weren’t careful.”

Reyes is the second recipient in CGU history of this prestigious research award.

The last thing Reyes’s younger self probably ever imagined was that he would escape these streets, train as a medic in the U.S. military, and now be selected as a recipient for one of the nation’s most prestigious health research and leadership initiatives, the Health Policy Research Scholars program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

The Foundation recently announced its 2021 recipients, and Reyes is only the second student from CGU to ever be selected (the other was SCGH student Jake Sumibcay in 2017).

The award provides Reyes with $30,000 per year for four years as he pursues a doctorate in public health.  Program participants also receive networking opportunities to prepare them for their careers after graduate school. The program was designed to help researchers find ways to apply their research to policies in support of health and equity as well as develop them as leaders.

The 28-year-old Reyes said he is interested in pursuing a career that will enable him to affect change on the macro-level, especially for underrepresented populations, and to find ways to address the constant stresses that produce unhealthy liftestyles “through policy, non-profit coalitions, grant management, or even developing coursework for free that works to help individuals overcome their unique life obstacles.”

“Honestly, I never would have believed someone like me coming from where I grew up would be given this chance,” he said.  “It’s awe-inspiring for me to think of how far I have come in life.”

Answering the call to service

Reyes’ interest in serving others started early as a student at Pacifica High School in Oxnard. While he was in the Teaching Educational Careers Academy there, he was permitted to act as a teacher to young children and saw the powerful impact he could have in helping them.

“Through this experience, my vocation grew,” he said, and before that he had “nothing in mind for the future.”

Without support at home, Reyes was determined to succeed and went on to develop his passion for blending education with health and medicine as an athletic trainer intern in sports medicine while attending community college.

Entering the U.S. military at 20 as a medic created more opportunities for Reyes, who tapped the financial educational support available to the military to attend Azusa Pacific University before enrolling at CGU.

Reyes cares very much about the disparities facing neglected populations, says Professor Deborah Freund, “because he’s experienced them himself.”

One of his most impactful experiences, he said, was developing a physical therapy clinic from scratch to support more than 500 service members at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“My vocation was always to help people in need,” he explained, “and it took the high school experience to start it all.”

For University Professor Debbie Freund, who had Reyes as a student and recommended him for the program, the award is a critical means of support for rising scholars from underrepresented populations.

“Angel is a very thoughtful person who cares very much about the disparities facing neglected populations because he’s experienced them himself,” Freund says. “Angel’s worked hard for everything he has. This fellowship gives him an opportunity to do so much more.”

Wanted: More Diversity in Public Health Professions

In 2019 JAMA published a report that Black, Latino, and Native American students remain underrepresented in medical schools/medical fields even though the numbers are improving.

For Freund, who studies the policies affecting these groups, considerable challenges still remain.

“The obstacles are huge,” she says. “Where race and ethnicity are concerned, we just don’t have enough individuals as doctors, nurses, and as other medical professionals, and that’s a big problem.”

When patients share a racial identity with their medical professionals, Freund says, the outcome is better.

Freund says this scarcity undermines the principle of racial concordance, which refers in the medical field to a shared racial identity between physicians and their patients.

“Individuals who go to a physician of the same ethnicity or race are more likely to trust that person and are more likely to go more often,” she explains, “but if there isn’t racial concordance, which is what we see today, they feel less safe and hesitate to go. That is why we need more people from underrepresented groups to be given a chance.”

Reyes says he understands the responsibility on his shoulders as a Latino male to be a part of that change.

“I do feel a big responsibility to change things for the better,” he said. “I believe that things change only when people truly care.”

He said that he didn’t fully understand the impact of race and representation in the health field until he enrolled at CGU. His work in his doctoral program has opened his eyes.

“I now know it’s about recognizing that something is wrong and taking a stance in order to fix it,” he says. “It’s about being an inspiration for those who come from your same background. It’s about showing them what’s possible instead of just being treated as something special, like a unicorn or some other magical creature. It is odd for me knowing my success is looked on as an inspiration when I know that anyone in a situation like mine could achieve their dreams if they just had the necessary help.”