April 28, 2010

Memorial Graduate Improving Health Across the Globe

Diane Vermeulen saw a spark in her ecology student's eyes as the Memorial junior was studying worldwide health issues. So Vermeulen asked junior Rebeca Laracuente to lead a class discussion on issues of reproductive health and overpopulation in India.


“It was the 'A-ha' moment for me," said Laracuente, a 2004 Memorial graduate. “I was determined to visit India and help women."


Laracuente turned that dream into a reality. While earning a bachelor of arts degree in biology and anthropology from Indiana University, (she receives her diploma next month) Laracuente traveled not only to India, but also to Pakistan, Ghana, Cuba, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, and Guatemala, conducting research on reproductive health and serving on many community service missions.

Laracuente's research focused on access to maternal health care in regions experiencing violent political conflicts. Her senior thesis was written from the research she conducted while doing fieldwork in two conflict zones, high-land Guatemala and the occupied region of Kashmir between India and Pakistan.


This latest effort earned Laracuente the IU Provost Award for Undergraduate Research, presented by IU president Michael McRobbie. It also earned her the Helen Fuld Health Trust Fellowship in advanced practice nursing at Yale University where Laracuente will work toward a master's of science nursing degree.


“Accepting the scholarship will allow me to conduct research and network with leaders in health care around the world," Laracuente said.


While she's excited about the future, Laracuente said she has to look to her past in Elkhart as the foundation of her success. “None of these things would have been possible if it wasn't for the guidance and inspiration of several Elkhart teachers and counselors," she stated. "I will be forever grateful for all they've done for me."

Laracuente with IU president Michael
McRobbie at the 2010 Honors Convocation 
earlier this month. Laracuente earned the
IU Provost Award for Undergraduate
Research as well as a fellowship to Yale 

 Laracuente interviews a woman about maternal
     health issues in the country of Kashmir

Laracuente, who attended Roosevelt Elementary and West Side Middle School, singled out her sixth-grade substitute teacher Mr. Jorgenson for setting high standards for her. “That inspired me," she explained. “I thought, 'If he thinks I can achieve them, maybe I can.' That set the tone for me for middle school and high school."


Her mentors at Memorial, where she was a member of the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council, Spanish Club and several cultural organizations, included counselor Larry Fielstra and math teacher Julie Tyrakowski, “who insisted I go to college" and Spanish teachers Laurie Brewton and Rita Raval, “who mothered me with their caring and compassion at a time I was going through a lot of family struggles."

The pair also saw Laracuente's passion for travel, and encouraged her to apply for IU's Summer Honors Program in foreign languages. Laracuente was accepted and spent the summer of her freshman year studying in Spain. “It was my first experience with international travel," Laracuente said. “It really opened my eyes to the world."

Laracuente also lauded Diana Vermeulen for noticing her interest in reproductive health issues. “The day I led that discussion, I walked out of school feeling like I'd found my calling," Laracuente said. “I wanted to help women worldwide access proper health care."

Laracuente also praised her senior internship with LaCasa of Goshen as having a significant impact on her life. She recommended that all high school seniors participate in an internship program.

“It was a very educational experience," she said. “I learned so much about community service. I believe the experience I gained there also helped me get a summer internship with AmeriCorps my freshmen year of college. Without that high school experience, I don't think I would have been considered for AmeriCorps so early in my college career."


Following her graduation from Memorial, Laracuente joined the military, hoping to become a translator and work to resolve conflict in the Middle East. After being injured in training, however, she had to choose another path.


“I saw IU as the place for me because I really wanted to travel and it has such a strong international program," Laracuente said. “I entered IU in 2005 after being accepted into GROUPS, which is a program for low income, first generation college students. It was a very intense, but wonderful support program."

She explained GROUPS offered remedial summer classes to prepare students for college-level courses, and provided support programs to keep students engaged and on track. "It was the springboard for my success in college," Laracuente said.

Other support programs, such as 21st Century Scholars and Hudson and Holland Scholars, also provided Laracuente with tuition assistance and academic and social support systems.

“Every freshman needs a support system, especially first generation students who don't have family members they can ask questions of," Laracuente explained, adding she wishes more of Elkhart's low-income students were aware of, and would take advantage of, these programs.


Laracuente was already interested in international health when she entered IU. Mission trips with the Timmy Foundation, which served more than 1,000 patients in one week, showed Laracuente that a small group of people can have a huge impact on the world.


During these trips, Laracuente became very involved with the indigenous Mayan population of Guatemala and began researching how the prolonged political conflict they'd endured affected maternal health and mortality rates. She did similar health studies of the women in Kashmir, another country riddled with conflict.

        Laracuente in the delivery room with a midwife

“This research gave me direction in my career," Laracuente said. “During my visits to these countries, I started working at clinics and hospitals set up by UNICEF or the World Health Organization. These organizations had released numerous reports calling for nurse-midwives and I responded to that call."


Laracuente is now focused on helping update the skills of existing nurse-midwives and on training new nurse-midwives worldwide. "This is a model that doesn't necessitate excessive technology and economic resources," she explained as the reason it can be most successful. “Also, it's very safe for women, and women of many cultures are accepting of it."


Laracuente said her fellowship at Yale includes a community service component which can allow her to continue her work in Guatemala. "I'll also likely be working in local low-income communities, such as Harlem," she stated.

 This little girl was one of the first babies Laracuente 
  helped deliver in Guatemala. She has assisted 18
               deliveries across the world.

Laracuente said she will probably follow up her master's degree with a doctorate or law school. Eventually she would like to wind up in Afghanistan, where 1 in 8 women die in childbirth. She listed women's lack of medicine, clean water, and proper nutrition as the major detriments. She is also currently learning Farsi, spoken in Afghanistan, in order to prepare for such an endeavor.


“There is a huge need for nurse-midwives in Afghanistan," Laracuente said. "I want to dedicate my life to ensuring that women in Afghanistan, and all across the globe, have access to proper maternal health care."


Laracuente said the main thing she would tell high school students today is to follow their dream, even when they run into obstacles. "I initially joined the military because I planned to become a translator," she explained. “I wanted to help people have meaningful communication so they could find a way to resolve their differences and solve major issues."

“Because I had a physical limitation, I wasn't able to fulfill that goal," Laracuente continued. “So I found another way to help. I'd stress to students not to let that first obstacle stop them in their tracks."

Laracuente said she would also tell students there is little in this life that is unrealistic. “It's all about the attitude you carry," she said, adding she had to overcome several family, health, and financial obstacles. “I believe perseverance is a stronger indicator of success than intelligence alone. If you're determined, you can achieve your dreams."

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