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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Brenda Berumen-Flucker’s Public Health Journey

By Sherry DiBari

It took a while for Brenda Berumen-Flucker, a doctoral student in health services research at Old Dominion University, to adjust to the culture in Norfolk.

"I grew up in spaces where speaking Spanish was expected and my culture was represented and visible," she said."It was uncomfortable at first, requiring a lot of adjustment on my part, but I have been very fortunate in the mentorship and the support I've gotten from my peers throughout the process."

Berumen-Flucker split her childhood between San Antonio, Texas, and Durango, Mexico.

"My family regularly traveled back and forth from the time I was born until I was in high school to make sure that my siblings and I had the opportunity to spend time with our grandparents and extended family," Berumen-Flucker said. "I would say, very proudly, that I grew up in both places."

Berumen-Flucker, the oldest of three children, is proud to be the daughter of two hardworking Mexican immigrants.

Spanish was the only language spoken at home until she attended kindergarten.

"In those days there weren't any English as a Second Language (ESL) courses offered at the school I was attending," she said. "Learning the English language was a challenge we tackled as a family."

In high school, she became interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

"I loved biology, chemistry and physics, and I originally had aspirations of pursuing a medical degree and focusing my career in pediatrics," Berumen-Flucker said.

As a freshman biology major at the University of North Texas, it took about two months before she fell out of love with the subject.

"I have always been very people oriented and I was unhappy with how little I got to learn about the human factors, perspectives, and how distant I felt from the subjects we were covering," Berumen-Flucker said.

For sophomore year, she transferred to the University of Texas at San Antonio and switched her major to public health.

"The very first day of classes, I knew that was the major for me," she said. "The courses and concepts all spoke to me."

She found herself doing extra research and exploring subjects like health disparities within her community, medical sociology, infectious diseases and population demographics.

After an internship with the Infection Control Department at the Children's Hospital of San Antonio, she applied for the master of public health program at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

The master's program offered her opportunities that she never imagined.

"In my first semester in the program, I began working as a graduate assistant and before I knew it, I was delivering occupational safety trainings on dairy farms," Berumen-Flucker said.

"Delivering those trainings changed how I thought about public health. I saw problems that I had never seen before, in a population that very well could have been my family."

Berumen-Flucker's father, a crop worker when he first arrived in the United States, often spoke about how grueling the work could be.

"Stepping on to that first farm, I saw exactly what my dad talked to me about. In all of the workers I talked to, I saw my dad. I saw my brothers. In later research projects assessing the occupational health and safety of female domestic cleaners, I saw my mom. After those experiences, occupational health and safety became my main focus and where I felt like I needed to be," she said.

In order to go out into the world and make actual change, Berumen-Flucker felt she needed to develop her research skills. "Pursuing a Ph.D. was the best way for me to do everything I wanted to do and better myself," she said.

That pursuit led her to relocate 1,500 miles to Norfolk.

"Old Dominion University offered me an opportunity to pursue a degree in health services research," Berumen-Flucker said. "As much as I love public health and epidemiology, I wanted to challenge myself in different ways.

Berumen-Flucker also felt that being mentored by Muge Akpinar-Elci, professor and chair of community and environmental health, was an incredible opportunity.

"Looking through the courses in the degree plan and through Dr. Akpinar's research, I knew it was the right program for me," she said.

Berumen-Flucker will graduate next spring. Her dissertation focuses on occupational health and safety of Hispanic/Latino agricultural workers in the United States.

She plans to return to Texas and teach at a Hispanic-serving institution and continue to research Hispanic/Latino agricultural worker health and safety.

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