Early Experiences Point The Way
Lilian Bravo’s interest in health care can be traced back to all the times she accompanied her parents and other family members to doctor’s appointments and hospital visits. Even at the age of 10, she recalls, “I was kind of their little tag-along interpreter.
“Obviously I loved doing it because I love helping my family in any way that I can,” says Bravo, whose parents came to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico, before she was born. “But, looking back on it now, there’s something inherently wrong with having a 10-year-old be the interpreter for these huge medical terms and putting that kind of weight on a kid, instead of having the hospital or health care clinic be responsible for having staff that is Latinx (the gender-neutral term for people of Latin American origin or descent) or speaks Spanish available to the clients who need it.”
After graduating from high school, Bravo thought she would become a pharmacist or enter premed. But the summer before she entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, another trip to a doctor’s office to help interpret for a family member—this time, for her cousin, who had just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes—changed her career course.
“I got to see the nurse being the person who comforted us in that time where we saw our cousin’s life change before our eyes with this condition,” Bravo says. “And she was the one who told us how to give him his injections, how to prick his finger. She was the one who made an impact on me, and on my cousin, and on all my family members. So I started to think maybe I would want to be that person for my community.”
Illuminating the Stigma of Mental Health Issues
At UNC at Chapel Hill, Bravo was accepted into the McNair Scholars Program, a federal program designed to increase graduate degree awards for students from underrepresented segments of society. That opened her mind to the idea of pursuing a PhD, and as faculty, staff, and other students encouraged her to consider the Hillman Scholars program, she realized that “a PhD could be an opportunity to have a larger scale impact on our current healthcare system through practice and policy reform.”
What Bravo wants to do is focus her research on mental health and the Latinx community. Working in a mental health rotation as an undergraduate “reconfirmed the fact that’s where I wanted to be,” she says. “The reason I am so invested in looking at mental health is connected to my personal experiences with family members battling depression and anxiety. I have grown up in a culture that tries to bury those illnesses instead of having an open line of communication to understand the root causes. It is especially a heavily stigmatized topic in the Latinx community.”
Mentorship and Support from Her ‘Family’
Bravo says the support she receives, not only from her own cohort of scholars in the program, but from the cohort before her, makes a huge difference. “We call ourselves the Hillman family. We’re definitely a family, that’s what it feels like. I think I could ask anyone in the program for help at any time. I never feel alone during any challenge that I’m going through.”
Bravo, who hopes to be a professor and researcher at an academic institution after earning her PhD, did her undergraduate honors thesis on mental health and HIV-positive Latino men. She credits her mentor, Cheryl Giscombe, PhD, RN, the Melissa and Harry LeVine Family Professor of Quality of Life, Health Promotion and Wellness, with “helping me mold the baby of an idea that I had into something that could be a research question.”
Giscombe, a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, was selected as a “Leader in the Field” by the American Psychological Association when she was awarded the Carolyn Payton Early Career Award. She has won major research grants from the National Institutes of Health, including the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Bravo says the mentorship she has received from Giscombe goes well beyond just academic concerns. “She’s very big on self-care,” Bravo says. “She pushes me, but at the same time I know she wants me take care of myself and do what’s best for me in the end. It’s amazing to have that kind of relationship with my mentor.”