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Photo: Astred Castro (L) & Rachel Mernoff (R)

Interview conducted by Marissa Hernandez, UCLA Blum Center Undergraduate Intern 

Astred Castro, a first year Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology major, and Rachel Mernoff, an undeclared first year, are two bright students in this year's Poverty and Health in Latin America Cluster Course. In a recent interview, Astred and Rachel shared reflections and highlights from their experiences enrolled in the cluster course so far, as well as aspirations for what they hope to gain by the end of the year-long course.

What do you hope to gain and learn from this class?

Astred: "I hope to gain insight and knowledge about poverty and health in Latin America, so I may possibly be part of the movement that is tackling this imperative issue that has such a deep connection with my background, roots, and culture." 

Rachel: "I hope to gain a better understanding of current disparities in Latin America, especially those that are largely unheard of in textbooks and the media. My research topic, for example, investigates the extraordinarily high percentage of women in Venezuela receiving plastic surgery, a topic that I was almost entirely unfamiliar with before starting the class." 

What interested you about this class the most?

Astred: "Being a part of a Mexican family has given me the opportunity to realize the abundance of poverty present in my parents' rural and underdeveloped homeland, in which I have experienced poverty firsthand in a small sector of Latin America. This is how I became intrigued by the course. I wanted to truly understand this issue, and the cluster gave me the opportunity to study the meaning of poverty and analyze the causes of impoverished individuals and nations in Latin America."

Rachel: "I was most interested in the intersectional approach to academia that this class requires. After reading about the class, I couldn't imagine a different type of introduction to the struggles and accomplishments of modern Latin America. The dynamics of Latin American society are so complex, involving colonialism, slavery, dramatic shifts in styles of government, etc., that a first year course that solely focuses on a single aspect of the topic would seem insufficient." 

Seeing as this is your first class at UCLA, what skills do you hope to improve and/or gain from this class as you transition from high school to college?

Astred: "I hope to improve my writing skills, with a focus on writing a well structured research paper. A main part of this course is writing an educational paper in which you investigate a problem in a Latin American country that is affecting the health of individuals. Through the process you learn to find academic resources, organize a research paper, and you are challenged to think critically about your subject. Yet, this task never felt like an assignment, but rather an enjoyable, intellectual enhancement, because you are able to study a topic of your choice." 

Rachel: "As the end of the quarter approaches, I can say that this class has fulfilled more than my expectations. This class is a joy to attend each day because I know I will immerse myself in new knowledge with amazing interactive Professors and TA's that illustrate a clear picture of what poverty and health in Latin America is through songs, videos, and lectures that lure you to ask questions. It has been a pleasure being a part of the discussions of this crucial topic." 

What expectations do you have for this class?

Astred: "As the end of the quarter approaches, I can say that this class has fulfilled more than my expectations. This class is a joy to attend each day because I know I will immerse myself in new knowledge with amazing interactive Professors and TA's that illustrate a clear picture of what poverty and health in Latin America is through songs, videos, and lectures that lure you to ask questions. It has been a pleasure being a part of the discussions of this crucial topic." 

Rachel: "In addition to learning about poverty and health in Latin America through a multifaceted perspective, I expect that this class will become a community. Because our lectures and discussions are so engaging and our individual research topics so fascinating, the class fosters an environment that is constantly requiring us, as students, to critically think and analyze the topics together. Establishing such a close-knit group of learners is especially important at a large institution, and makes it much easier to find our roles in the larger UCLA community."