When Karla Herrera decided to change her major from pre-nursing to public health, it was a leap of faith that the brand-new program would be a good fit for her. She had to believe not just in herself but in her university.
Herrera was among the first students to enroll in Cal State Bakersfield’s public health program when it first launched in the fall of 2021. With many requirements already met thanks to her previous major, Herrera will now be CSUB’s first public health graduate just two years later.
“I’m very excited and it feels very special to be the first one,” she said. “I just hope that I can set a good example for others wanting to be in public health, and I hope I can put a good word out for what a public health student looks like and make some good things happen in the community.”
A Bakersfield native who moved to Houston at 5 years old and returned here at 16, Herrera came to CSUB after graduating from Ridgeview High School in 2018. Her interest in health care came from personal experience — growing up, her parents had issues with their health, and as a freshman in high school, Herrera was already experiencing high blood pressure. Knowing her family’s health history was not something she could “escape,” she decided to eat healthy and be active.
“It kickstarted my journey in health,” Herrera, 23, said. “I became interested in the human body and health overall. Later, as I grew up, it built into something not just about me and my family, but about my community’s health as well, and that’s where public health came in.”
Herrera started CSUB with the intention of enrolling in the nursing program. It was in the height of COVID when she first heard the university was planning a public health degree, and the general upheaval of her college experience during remote learning made Herrera feel like it might be time to embrace something new.
“I’ve always been afraid of change, but I’ve also been a firm believer that I have to put myself outside of my comfort zone, because that is when I see growth in myself and my life,” she said. “So, when I heard about it, I was like, ‘It’s time to make this change.’”
Small class sizes are a major selling point for students attending CSUB, but Herrera’s first few classes of the new program took that to a new level. She remembered a class during remote learning that had only six students.
“It was a lot of discussion-based assignments in the class, so we all had to put our two cents in,” Herrera recalled. “It kind of forced you to participate. That really taught me if there’s any silence in the class, I have to be the one to break it.”
Public health students will take a senior seminar course in their final semester, but as the program’s first and only graduating senior so far, the class is just Herrera and Linh Bui, an assistant professor in the program.
“At first, I was like, ‘Oh no, the pressure!’ But I’ve actually really enjoyed it,” Herrera said. “I feel very lucky to have this alone time where she’s investing in me and putting all her energy in me. I’ve been learning a lot through that, and I feel I’ve been able to get a lot of advice and knowledge from her from these one-on-ones.”
Bui also enjoyed her time with Herrera, saying her student exhibits great critical thinking and diligence in all her work.
“Most importantly, she is passionate about improving the local community health,” she said. “She is a great representation of CSUB public health students. I believe she will bring her skills and passion to serve the community, and I am really proud of her.”
Herrera is also currently interning at the Kern County Public Health Services Department, where she is working within the tobacco health education program and learning all about other career opportunities she could pursue with her degree.
“It’s been the best experience, and it’s been teaching me so much about those different careers,” she said. “What I’ve found most pleasantly surprising is that everyone there loves their job, and they enjoy what they do and it’s fulfilling to them. That’s the number-one thing I could ask for when looking for a career.”
The public health program was created to respond to an urgent need for professionals in the field locally. There were few students enrolled in public health classes the first semester it was offered. Now, there are 68 for the spring 2023 semester. For Todd McBride, CSUB’s director of health programs, Herrera’s graduation is “the culmination of a lot of hard work by many contributors” from the university and the Bakersfield community.
“The regional need for a four-year degree program in public health is profound,” he said. “Graduates from our program will be on the front line in efforts to close the health disparity gap in many of our communities. I look forward to many more CSUB students following in Ms. Herrera’s footsteps.”
As she finishes her education at CSUB and looks toward the future, Herrera will remember her time at CSUB as “the best college experience I could ask for.” She didn’t know what to expect when she started college but quickly found a welcoming and positive environment where everyone is accepted.
Herrera encourages future public health students to not be afraid to speak up in class and share their ideas. That might be good advice for any college student, but particularly for those who will be serving their community through public health, she said.
“We need different minds of different experiences and different backgrounds to be able to understand the various levels of community and people that we have here in Bakersfield,” she said. “We need people from every city in Kern County to help better the community.”
As the sole representative from her program, Herrera won’t have her public health classmates to celebrate with at this month’s commencement, but in the stands, she will have her mother, her youngest of four older brothers, her boyfriend and his parents, her grandparents and her aunt, as well as her professors.
“My dad unfortunately passed about two Christmases ago, but up until then he was also one of my biggest supporters,” she said. “I know he’ll be there with me too on the day of commencement.”
After graduation, Herrera would like to continue working with the county health department. The desire to promote health in her community that led her to public health has only been strengthened during her time in the program.
“Bakersfield has always been good to me, and it has a special place in my heart,” she said. “Your community is where you’re at, no matter where you’re at. There’s a lot of need in Bakersfield, so I really wanted to focus on making a change in my community."