Alumni Spotlight: Yamnia Cortes ’98

Yamnia Cortes ’98

I write on a daily basis. Yet, trying to convey what De La Salle Academy (DLSA) means to me and the impact this community has had on my life is more difficult than my usual writing. I have many fond memories of DLSA: morning hugs, skits in Spanish class, Friday soccer, baking cookies during the 8th grade girl’s retreat, ducking erasers in math class, and celebrating the Passover Seder. However, my most important takeaways from DLSA are the lessons on social responsibility, service, inclusivity, and justice. These are the lessons that have guided me in school, my career, and my personal life. 

When I graduated DLSA in 1998 and attended The Dalton School, I had a difficult time adjusting to the new social environment. I tried to build a support network by participating in several cultural clubs at the school and serving as a peer leader during my senior year, which meant mentoring a group of 9th grade students. However, I spent most of my time volunteering on social and environmental justice projects at a community-based organization in my neighborhood in the Bronx. I also served as a peer educator, presenting health-related workshops in the local community and in public high schools in the district where I lived. While in high school, I attended a summer program in Philadelphia for students interested in health careers; Brother Brian had encouraged me to apply when I was in DLSA. This was my first experience away from home and the transition was tough, but I was not alone. There were several other students from DLSA in this summer program and we created our own family. Brother Brian and Brother David visited us on several occasions. As one of the oldest, I knew I was responsible for my younger brothers and sisters; Brother Brian made sure I knew it too! These experiences not only fueled my interest in a health-related career, but they reinforced the importance of thinking beyond myself and about how I can contribute to society.

I pursued my interest in social justice and health at Williams College where I majored in Biology and completed a concentration in Latino/a Studies. During this time I volunteered as an interpreter on a medical missions trip to the Dominican Republic. At Williams I continued to build networks of support and participated in groups where I felt a sense of community; for me, the most powerful was the Williams College Gospel Choir (but that’s another story). I soon realized that my true passion was public health, specifically understanding how sociocultural, environmental, and biological factors are related to health and health behaviors. I wanted to tackle issues of health disparities in communities like my own that were disproportionately affected by diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and violence. As a result, I attended Columbia University where I received a Master’s in Public Health and went on to complete an accelerated Bachelor/Master’s program in nursing.

As a registered nurse and volunteer family nurse practitioner in primary care clinics in the Bronx, I was able to directly care for the health of individuals and families. When a patient who did not speak Spanish saw that I was a native speaker, there was a sense of relief. What I enjoyed most was being able to provide compassionate care and health education. In addition, I wanted to create programs and policies that would improve the health of communities and the social conditions that contribute to health disparities. Therefore, I returned to Columbia University and completed a PhD in the School of Nursing.    

I am now an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I am currently developing a community-based program to improve health behaviors and reduce cardiovascular disease risk in Latinas. I am also conducting research projects to better understand the connection between earlier life experiences (e.g., financial strain, trauma, stress, preterm birth) and later life health in women. While teaching and mentoring are essential elements of my work, they are also the aspects of my job that I enjoy most. This is one reason that I continue to volunteer with young people across all age groups and share my experiences. These opportunities are my way of “paying it forward,” a value that I know DLSA instilled in me and that I hope to impart others.  

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