Five years ago, Maria Behrens ’11 had just graduated from Ithaca College. Equipped with a newly minted degree and a passion to promote well-being and improve the health of others, the health sciences major packed up her bags and went to rural Ecuador to educate, explore, and grow as a professional.
In Ecuador she worked with a nonprofit organization that brings mobile medical clinics to isolated communities throughout the mountainous region of the country. For Behrens, volunteering abroad fulfilled a desire to travel overseas and immerse herself in a foreign culture, addressing health disparities in a non-Westernized population.
Behrens said her experience in Ecuador cemented her desire to further her education in public health and pursue a career dedicated to educating and equipping people with the skills, resources, and knowledge needed to thrive and live healthy lifestyles.
“When you’re out of your comfort zone and feel like you are where you're meant to be—helping people from diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses—it broadens your perspective of the world and how you fit in it,” Behrens said.
Honing in on a Specialization
Upon completing her volunteer work, she decided to attend Boston University for her master’s degree in public health with an emphasis in environmental health. In her current role, Behrens works as a wellness director for Optum Health in New York City. In her role, Behrens develops and implements various health and well-being programs and events on topics related to nutrition, stress management, preventive health screenings, and balancing work–life demands.
“I realized I didn’t want to see patients and treat their diseases,” she said. “I wanted to prevent their diseases from happening in the first place.” Behrens considers her college experiences and volunteer opportunities as the beginning of her path toward a career as a health professional. During her time at IC, she volunteered at the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes, a local organization that provides education and resources to people affected by cancer. This experience helped instill her passion for work in the health field and provided her with the opportunity to receive mentorship and grow from her experiences.
“My volunteer experience increased my comfort level in my professional life, as well as made me more comfortable in my own skin. I learned that when your passion and career begin to align, you are more genuine and give people your true self,” Behrens said. This concept was reinforced for Behrens through IC’s Alternative Spring Break program. In her senior year at IC, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to work at D.C. Central Kitchen and Food and Friends, nonprofit organizations that aim to address food shortages in the metropolitan area, as well as provide nutritious meals to people living with various life-threatening medical conditions.
“It was a really fantastic experience because, as a senior, I was able to work with the younger students who were also volunteering and educate them on what public health was,” she said. “Working on emergency food programs was a benefit to the people right there at that moment [and also promoted] a larger initiative.”
Bringing it All Together
While at IC, Behrens was also involved with the college’s Center for Health Promotion, where she worked on the center’s e-magazine, Student Health 101 and the monthly Reach for Health newsletter. Her work at the center provided her with insight in to her future career as she learned how to better communicate with senior stakeholders as well as her peers.
Behrens said she uses the skills she has learned from her volunteer experiences and academic studies in her current role. Her work with the Cancer Resource Center, emergency foods programs, and experiences in Ecuador allowed her to engage with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, which she said is imperative while developing wellness and healthy lifestyle programs for populations.
“Volunteering provides you with all these skills and experiences that help you figure out who you are as a person and what’s important to you; when you are passionate and have values and goals in mind, you become more effective and can and make real change in people’s lives,” she said.
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Fuse is a student produced publication about the Ithaca College experience. All content in the print and web versions of Fuse is developed by current Ithaca College students in a breadth of different areas of study.