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Juntos: Coming “Together” with GWHT

One of the wonderful things about GWHT is that our staff are all incredibly passionate about their work, often going above and beyond their assigned roles as researchers, faculty, or staff.


Keny Murillo

Keny Murillo, a Research Associate at GWHT originally from Honduras, recently used his vacation days to volunteer with Juntos. Juntos, or “Together” in Spanish, is a community organization dedicated to supporting Latinx 8th-12th grade students. He served as a Team Captain, mentoring students interested in medicine.


At GWHT, we are inspired by the work Keny does with Juntos, so we interviewed him to learn more about his involvement.




 

Juntos is a dropout prevention and college-access program for high school and middle school students in rural North Carolina that involves the whole family. Juntos has year-long programming in select schools where students’ parents are invited to participate in workshops about the American school system and how they can help their children go to college. Juntos also has annual summer camps called “Academia” where students stay at the North Carolina State University campus for a whole week to engage in various career and professional workshops, experience college life, and have fun while building a community and network that includes their peers and mentors. Lastly, Juntos has four career/interest tracks that students can delve into: Agriculture, Business, Engineering, and Health.”


“I first got involved with Juntos a decade ago when I was a sophomore in high school. I was an enthusiastic student at Granville Central High School, located in a town of less than 600 people, and knew I wanted to go to college. My parents and I were part of a Juntos curriculum that taught us about graduating from high school and what I needed to do to get to college. I remember that my favorite part of Juntos was being able to stay on NC State’s campus and live together with other students, just like one does at college.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining Juntos’ first virtual Academy — not as a student, but as a Team Captain! In this role, I had the opportunity to lead and instruct 14 Latinx students interested in a career in medicine. We had a packed schedule involving more Zoom meetings and GroupMe conversations than I had ever participated in (keep in mind that I’ve been working from home since March 13th, so plenty of Zoom meetings have occurred in the last few months). I led a workshop on medical interpreting, shared my story of growing up undocumented in the U.S., and I shared about my college experience and getting into medical school. I also talked a lot about my current job as a Research Associate at the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies and the experience of working with biomedical engineers like Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam. I did my best to emphasize the importance of global health and making an impact in our communities, and ultimately, living a life of service.


“COVID-19 has upended our usual way of living life. Juntos Academy was not immune to the life-altering circumstances generated by the pandemic, hence why we had the first completely virtual Academy! Even though we were not able to convene in person and live on campus this summer, Juntos was able to become “home” to many more students because of the virtual setup.

Every day we started with a morning “energizer” to get the students excited for the rest of the day. There were daily workshops on various topics surrounding medicine, and the students received a Littmann stethoscope to keep! Juntos gifted me my personal stethoscope as well, which I cannot wait to start using on my patients!

Keny on a Zoom call with some of his Juntos students.

We would generally have lunch and dinner together via Zoom, and there was time in the evening for reflections, questions and comments. Although the first day was taciturn in nature, the students really opened up after that and became quite engaged in the activities, asking questions and providing comments through the chat box, and even sharing their personal hardships with school and life in general. Looking back, I have to say that I bonded with the students and the other team captains, and I wish I could have met them in person.”


“My background really matched with those of the students, and my story is one that is too familiar for them and/or their parents. My hope this summer was to give back a little of all the things I have received that have enabled me to be where I am today.

I had a very non-traditional path to medicine. Even though I graduated in the top ten of my high school class and with honors, I did not have the option of going to college. I was denied acceptance at some universities because of my immigration status and, at places where I was accepted, I did not receive the full-ride that I depended on. Without the option of loans and disqualified from any federal and state aid, my option of higher education was bleak and my dreams shattered. In fact, what was supposed to be a joyous day — walking down the stage to receive my high school diploma — was bittersweet. I remember sitting on the front row with teary eyes thinking, ‘I’m not even going to college. What am I doing here?’ I felt out of place.

I never want a student who has given his/her best and who wants to go to college to feel out of place or assaulted by thoughts and feelings of failure. The students I worked with two weeks ago are champions. Their participation in a virtual summer camp that demanded long hours and pushed them outside of their comfort zone is testimony to their desire to pursue something that their parents did not have the option to do, or were not even allowed to dream about. Our society has an obligation to nurture these students’ talents and drive. I hope that through my story and trajectory thus far, I am able to inspire them to never give up on their dreams of becoming that nurse, that oncologist, or that surgeon — no matter how winding and long the road may be. Each one of us has a journey to travel, and it’s much more worthwhile when you are paying it forward and making the best of it. Trust me.”


For me, the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies is a conglomeration of research, education, and entrepreneurship, but it’s also about empowering others to do something for the greater good — always keeping in mind the stakeholders and the impact of what you’re developing. The identity of who we are and our mission [at GWHT] is to serve a particular group of people who have faced discrimination throughout history and cultures, and who are still marginalized today — women. In my particular case, I have been involved in the cervical cancer team these past 12 months, and even with my tiny contribution, I have felt that I have made a difference in helping to ensure that women have the option of dignified and excellent care regardless of whether they live in a big city with resources or in a small town with inadequate access to care. The Callascope is a device that democratizes the way cervical cancer screening is currently done, and it shifts our very rigid paradigm of provider-centered care to patient-centered.

Juntos fits well into the work I do because it’s about empowering Latinx youth to graduate from high school and to pursue a college education. Like me, all of the students I worked with are first-generation college students and come from backgrounds where college is not necessarily the expectation or even something that is talked about, as it is in other families. The students are smart and have potential, but they sometimes lack the confidence and the means to apply and go to college. Juntos is changing this paradigm and making a difference for every student that enrolls in the program. It certainly made a difference in my life.”

 

We are proud to have members of our team that are always looking for ways to empower others and serve the greater good. We are especially proud of the ways Keny is using his own experiences to serve those with familiar stories.

Thanks, Keny!

You can read more about Keny and Juntos here.

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