Inspiring Young Latina: Dr. Brenda Henry-Sanchez

Brenda Henry-Sanchez proves that with education and practice, you can make the world a better place. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, Sanchez has a passion for making sure our nation is on a path towards better health. As the program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she oversees the grassroots initiatives that improve the wellbeing of underrepresented communities nationwide.

Sanchez received both her Ph.D. in health behavior and health education and her M.P.H. from the University of Michigan. In addition, she was awarded a B.S., cum laude, from SUNY, College at Cortland.

The successful Latina reveals what a day’s work is like and her career advice for pursuing her line of work. Get inspired below!

As the senior program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, your daily job is to improve our nation’s health and well-being. What’s a day’s work like?

“No two days are alike. I spend a good amount of time speaking with my grantees about the progress of their work, and troubleshooting issues, as they arise. I spend a lot of time getting up to speed on where the gaps exist in our knowledge about how we can best improve the outcomes for the most vulnerable within our society. I also work with colleagues to disseminate that information to key decision makers that have the power to make changes for the better.”

What inspired you to get into this field of work?

“When I first when to college, the vision I had for improving health was to become a medical doctor. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned there was this field – public health – that focused on keeping individuals and communities from getting sick in the first place. While I have great respect for the medical profession, I decided that my calling was to reduce the need to go to the doctor and seek care for illnesses that are completely avoidable. As a result, my focus is on creating a more justice society that allows all of us to be as healthy as we can be.”

What are some challenges you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

“I have been very fortunate to have been supported along my entire career path by mentors, friends, and families. One challenge, however, that I face constantly is people assuming that I’m less accomplished than I am because I’m a woman of color. Another challenge is that even in 2012, I still find that in some meetings, I’m the only person of color in the room. In these situations, I try to remain focused and centered and remind folks, where needed, that my perspectives do not represent the perspective of all Latinos, let alone, communities of color.”

As a Latina, what were some values and traditions that were passed down to you?

“Hard work, respect, loyalty, and gratitude. Importance of family, even in the midst of the most dysfunctional situations, which mine has not suffered a shortage of! All of these have benefited me not only in my personal life but my professional life as well. I also learned that nothing I do matters if I don’t leave a positive imprint and a roadmap for those coming behind me to follow.”

What’s your message to other young Latinas that hope to get into your line of work?

“Get some experience under your belt. Classroom education is critical and important, but you must not underestimate the value that lived experience brings to you professionally. I absolutely love what I do. It fulfills me and I feel like I’m contributing to a more just society every step of the way. However, at the end of the day, I earn my pay (and stripes) by how well I navigate situations that are messy and ambiguous, which I only learned by combining my book knowledge with real world experience.”

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