Martin Lara (Health + Tech ’22): “We need more compassion… and this starts with the self.”

Martin Lara is a Health + Tech fellow studying Sociology. Here, he shares more about his personal and professional interests and why he chose the Fung Fellowship.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a first-generation, LatinX, low-income, and third-year transfer from Oakland, California. I am a re-entry student at the age of 31, and my major is Sociology. I’ve had a nonlinear college path, and I spent ten years at a community college with educational gaps.

What do you study at Berkeley? Why did you choose it?

Prior to transferring to UC Berkeley, I worked as a maintenance manager for a non-profit law firm, Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal). BayLegal is an organization that advocates on behalf of the Bay Area’s most vulnerable people — which contributed to my interest in Sociology. While working at BayLegal I have gained in-depth knowledge of the social problems individuals face in my community.

In particular, I grew fond of the Youth Justice unit at BayLegal; and I admired how the attorneys built a strong rapport with their clients. Many of the youth they work with have experienced trauma or are system-involved. I envision myself one day working with youth because I can relate to many of the issues they face. I remember how intimidating it was facing the criminal justice system as a young person. I also struggled to find my way as a student with few resources. I sympathize with the youth clients because accessing resources is difficult at a young age. These experiences have helped me develop a passion for social justice and advocacy.

My goal in majoring in Sociology is to bring what I’ve learned from my courses back to the community to advocate on behalf of those who have been impacted by dehumanizing systems. My own personal experience navigating the education system as a formerly system-involved, first-generation college student, captivated my interest in Sociology.

What brought you to the Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley?

During the summer, a friend who was a former graduate student instructor (GSI) at the Fung Fellowship recommended that I apply. I did my research on the Fung Fellowship on their website. I became interested in joining because I wanted to gain in-depth knowledge of the societal challenges in health and begin to create solutions. Also, I wanted to familiarize myself with the tech aspect of the Fung Fellowship. Growing up in a low-income household, I didn’t have a computer or WiFi connection at home. Not having a computer at home became an educational barrier I faced growing up and prevented me from gaining tech literacy. Today, I’m figuring out how to use different software and applications that have been beneficial to my professional development.

What is your biggest takeaway so far from the program? Has it influenced your professional career in any way?

The Fung Fellowship has taught me many valuable skills. Still, the biggest takeaway I’ve gained from the program is the wealth of knowledge brought by the instructors and collaborating with my peers to work on design challenges in current societal problems in public health. My group members have helped bring creative ideas to take on the design challenges. In addition, my group members have helped me gain tech literacy skills. I give a lot of credit to my group members because they have helped me gain skills I couldn’t have imagined before joining the program. The emphasis on group work is essential because this is a skill to bring to a professional and academic environment. Overall, the Fung Fellowship has helped me develop a public health lens, and I hope to seek a career with a public health agency.

What kind of impact do you want to have on the world through your academic and professional work?

To impact the world with my academic and professional work is a complex task. Starting with a change in the world begins with the self. As a re-entry student, I’ve worked in many different fields of work: non-profit law firm, general labor, public safety, and the restaurant/bar industry, and I’ve seen many people who struggle with their mental health. I want to highlight the importance of self-compassion and self-care — this will go a long way, not just for yourself but also for everyone around you. Today, we need more compassion amongst one another, and this starts with the self. If you’re able to love yourself, it will create more peace in your surroundings — this is important for the academic and professional setting.

“The Fung Fellowship has helped me develop a public health lens, and I hope to seek a career with a public health agency.”

What is something that you’re passionate about?

Something I’m passionate about is mental health awareness. The global pandemic has been difficult times, from high unemployment rates, stay-at-home orders, remote learning for students, and housing issues. In the past year, I’ve become aware of the importance of treating my mental health. After receiving health benefits for the first time in my life, I finally had an opportunity to seek therapy from a professional. I was able to join group therapy sessions and do personal sessions, bi-weekly. Seeking professional therapy has improved my life, being able to talk to someone about my personal issues and trauma has given me the capability to get through life problems.

I’ve grown passionate about mental health care because I’ve finally found the importance of seeking therapy to improve my livelihood. I grew up in Oakland, CA, and many of my community members aren’t aware of the significance of seeking professional therapy. In addition, my community members do not have medical insurance to cover therapy. I would like to see locations offer professional therapy in marginalized communities. All communities should be able to resource mental health programs to cope with social and personal issues.

Is there something you are currently working on/interested in outside of your day-to-day work that you would like to share?

Being a former boxer, I am interested in helping former and current contact sports athletes struggling with mental health. It is common for contact sport athletes to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a degenerative disease found in contact sport athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The unfortunate thing is that CTE can only be diagnosed during autopsies. So, this leaves contact sports athletes without any diagnosis of CTE during their life. I would like to research to understand if the social determinants of health also affect their mental health.

What advice do you have for those who are curious about the fellowship, but unsure if they should apply?

You’ll be able to learn so much about current public health issues in the Fung Fellowship. The program brings experts to discuss their perspectives and give incredible insight into existing public health issues. In addition, the class has such great diversity, and everyone brings a wealth of knowledge from their backgrounds. One of the best parts of the Fung Fellowship is working in groups; it has been a great experience — working with my peers from different majors allows you to gain insight into other qualities students have. We all offer unique strengths and help one another to improve our weaknesses. The team setting is challenging but a rewarding experience that will teach you group dynamics.

What are some of your non-academic hobbies/passions, and how, if at all, have they inspired your professional goals?

My non-academic interests are boxing and hiking. I love boxing, whether training in the gym, watching it for leisure, or helping others learn to fight. I spend a lot of my free time watching highlights of boxing matches and reading boxing forums. Boxing has inspired my professional goals because I envision myself opening a non-profit boxing gym to provide resources available to the Oakland community. In addition, I would like to add hiking and camping available to members of the gym, and it’ll allow the youth to explore the parks in California.

“The Sweet Science”

Fun fact or a favorite quote (or both):

I was a bartender for 10 years before transferring to UC Berkeley. My favorite drink to make is Mezcal Palomas! I also enjoy getting creative, especially if someone requests a custom drink.

Quote: “You have already mastered fear and self-rejection; now you are returning to self-love. You can be so strong and so powerful that with your self-love you transform your personal dream from fear to love, from suffering to happiness. Then just like the sun, you are giving light and giving love all the time, with no conditions.” — Don Miguel Ruiz

Connect with Martin Lara at malarajr90@gmail.com.

Edited by Nick Yang.

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