Black History Month: MPH student Gabrielle Haley hopes to be an advocate for the Black community in adolescent and sexual health

Haley's childhood hero inspired her to pursue a career in science

Gabrielle Haley is an MPH student at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio.
Gabrielle Haley is an MPH student at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio.

When Mae Jemison rocketed into space as the first Black female astronaut in 1992, she became an inspiration for little girls who were not even born yet to also pursue careers in science.

For Gabrielle Haley, an MPH student in San Antonio, Jemison made her literally want to reach for the stars. Haley said she studied the NASA astronaut and made a particularly memorable presentation about her in elementary school, and from then on, she said, Jemison was sealed in her heart as her hero.

“I wanted to be just like her,” Haley said. “To see her going into space, to see someone who looks like me, I knew I could do that. I still talk about that to this day. She inspired me to pursue what I want to do. If you’re scared, do it anyway.”

Haley grew up in North Carolina where both parents served in the Air Force. She said her mother’s job as a nurse in the Air Force was part of what sparked her interest in health-related careers where she could serve others.

After graduating with her bachelor’s in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Haley said her mentor pointed her in the direction of public health, which fit well with psychology and her desire to serve.

She decided to do graduate school in Texas to spend time with her extended family living in the state, but she said she wasn’t quite prepared for life in the big city when she first moved to San Antonio.

“Living in Charlotte I thought I was a city girl, but now I know I’m not a city girl,” Haley said, laughing. “But the student association social events have really helped me get to know the city, and I’ve met a lot of great people.”

Despite the culture shock, Haley plunged right into her new city and university when she moved to San Antonio, getting involved with the student association, where she is the volunteer coordinator, and connecting with other students.

She’s also working with Jack Tsai, PhD, professor and regional dean in San Antonio, as a graduate research assistant on a study about unsheltered homelessness among veterans.

While working on her MPH, serving on the student association and working as a research assistant, Haley said she also loves her job as an educational specialist at UTSA’s Wellbeing Services’ Peace Center, where she helps to both educate and advocate for students on sexual safety and health.

“We tell students, ‘No matter what, you have to give your consent,’” Haley said. “We’re teaching them and then providing them the resources on where to go if anything does happen. We are a confidential resource on campus for students, so they have advocates who can help them and lead them along the way.”

Haley said her ultimate goal after graduate school is to work in health promotion and research on adolescent sexual health, and educate young people, particularly in the Black community, about STDs and STIs.

“As someone who's grown up in [the Black] community, knowing the different stereotypes and norms that are there, I want to use research to get through those barriers to get important information to Black adolescents and Black people in general,” she said. “I want to find ways to normalize things that have been so taboo in the community.”

Haley said representation is important because, in the same way Jemison inspired her to feel like she belonged in science, she wants to inspire and provide a safe space for Black people when they see her working in public health.

“They may not realize how much they need that until they have it,” she said.

Haley said Black History Month is important because she has learned as an adult that she doesn’t know as much about her ancestor’s contributions to U.S. history as she wishes she did.

“In school, it was very much slavery, and then, ‘okay, we’re done,’” Haley said. “I didn't get to learn about the beginnings of Black history and our achievements.

“Even outside of this month it’s important to educate yourself on black history. Picking up a book, researching – it’s something people should do. Be open to having conversations with people outside of your own community, be open to different perspectives and learning about other people and cultures. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable - that’s where you grow.”

site var = sph