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Graduating senior Stephanie Perez. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Senior combines love of science and development studies in her IDS major

International Institute student Stephanie Perez graduates this June with an IDS major and double minors in global health and global studies.Her education has led her to choose a future in public health.

Above all, in IDS I learned that it's important to partner with communities who are already doing the work and to lift the voices of those who aren't traditionally represented in academia.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, May 6, 2022 — “International development studies [IDS] provided me with a solid foundation for understanding why medical inequities occur. Rather than only looking at the conditions in front of you, it gets to the root of where these issues can start beyond a clinic,” says UCLA senior Stephanie Perez.

A first-generation college student of Mexican heritage, Perez graduates this June with an IDS major and double minors in global health and global studies. All three academic programs are offered by the UCLA International Institute.

Passions that led to public health

Perez’s first insight into global inequality came during an international science camp she attended between her junior and senior years of high school.

“Due to my background, I’ve always been aware of the disparities that existed around me,” says Perez, who grew up in Compton. “But it wasn’t until I went out of the country for the first time ever that I realized what they meant on an international scale.

“It was a U.S. State Department–funded program that brought girls interested in science from seven different countries together in Malawi, a country in southeast Africa. Although some of my peers and I could relate to having experienced educational disadvantages, lack of access to healthcare and poverty, the ways [these things] manifested in our lives looked drastically different due to factors within [our respective] countries.

“Even though I didn’t know what international development was at the time, I was already thinking: ‘Beyond just giving people resources or treating them, how can we prevent these issues from happening in the first place?”

The articulate, soft-spoken student began UCLA as a biology major, but soon switched to human biology. She eventually found her way to the international development major, where she has combined her love of science with a passion for reducing inequality.

“I knew that I wanted to make an international impact and that healthcare was a deep need for many, but I also knew that I didn’t want to be a doctor in the traditional sense. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I realized, ‘Oh, that’s public health — trying to reduce the issues upstream before they even happen.’”

Her global health minor has also allowed Perez to envision the type of future she wants for herself. “I have loved the global health classes so much. They’ve taught me how to think critically about ameliorating issues in a way that’s sustainable, sensitive and ethical — a quality that is increasingly needed in healthcare today.

“One of my favorite classes ever was with a professor in the International Institute, Dr. Ippolytos Kalofonos. Meeting professors like him — faculty that are essentially doing what I want to do: taking care of patients physically, but also considering the social determinants of their health — really inspired me.

“I realized that there’s no limit, there’s no one job description — you can create one.

“Above all, in IDS I learned that it’s important to partner with communities who are already doing the work and to lift the voices of those who aren’t traditionally represented in academia.”

She advises future IDS students, “If you don’t know what you want to do yet, you will find out through learning about all these different subjects. You don’t have to fit into one box. So if that’s what you’re scared of, well, IDS will not do that to you. They will let you create your own box.”

From the local to the global and back again

The Bruin student is now writing a senior honors thesis on access to oral health care in South Africa. “I came to focus on oral health because of my own experiences in accessing quality, dignified dental care growing up, seeing how the burden of oral disease affected those around me and how this problem was exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It made me wonder as I was taking my international development classes, ‘How are people abroad affected by this?’

“Oral health is such a huge indicator of your body’s systemic health and is therefore a huge part of fulfilling the United Nation’s third Sustainable Development Goal. I felt that I had found a niche; I saw it as an opportunity to pioneer an area of research and advocacy that linked together oral public health and development.”

As for her global studies minor, Perez says, “[it has let] me think more about the economy and the role that globalization plays and it’s helped me become a more well-rounded person and bring a perspective that is often forgotten.

“I’ve taken classes on Brazil and its history, on Africa’s political economy, on society and culture. During the pandemic, it was so meaningful to be taking those classes in real time as everything was happening.”

The stellar student has won a plethora of scholarships at UCLA, including a Regents Scholarship, Gilman Scholarship (U.S. State Department) and UCLA-HASS Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Perez has also worked assiduously to gain both practical and research experience, doing research internships for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the White-Ndwanya Memorial Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa , as well as volunteering for the UCLA Oral Health 4 Vulnerable Populations and the Los Angeles Human Rights Initiative.

The UCLA senior was initially attracted to UCLA because she saw it as a global hub of researchers, physicians and artists that also partnered with the Los Angeles community that she grew up in. “Seeing that level of social consciousness, domestically and abroad, made me fall in love with UCLA because it was a place where anything could really happen,” she relates.

Four years later, she can say it has. “UCLA has allowed me to create what I wanted and more. I really did everything that I wanted and have come so far from being a kid from Compton who just wanted to help people like myself. I’m so thankful.”

Looking ahead, she has big plans: earning an M.P.H. and D.D.S., followed by a career in public health dentistry that combines clinical practice and research. She takes the first step toward those goals in June, when she starts a competitive Stanford University summer research program in population health.

By fall, she will be working part-time in a UCLA gastroenterology research lab, volunteering at a local dental clinic and attending a post-baccalaureate program at UCLA Extension to prepare for graduate health and dental studies.

“I don't think any of this would have happened without first falling in love with international development studies. Although it’s not the traditional route to health care, I don’t regret majoring in IDS at all. I would not trade it for a bachelor’s in science in biology.

“It gave me vision and purpose for how science can improve people’s lives on a deeper scale than just one encounter. It’s informed me about the world. And I hope that wherever I go, IDS will continue to do that.”