Luisa N. Borrell, associate professor of public health at Lehman College and The Graduate Center
Everybody learns at different rates and in different ways. Some students excel at book studying, some call upon life experiences to connect with the material, and for others the light comes on when they see the principles put into practice.
Luisa N. Borrell -- an associate professor at Lehman College, dentist and epidemiologist -- knows this all too well because all three methods have played a key role in her education.
Borrell, who had been practicing and teaching dentistry in her native Dominican Republic, decided to move to New York City. She knew a lot about dentistry but virtually nothing about the English language. To get her U.S. credentials, she had to go back to school.
While she earned a dual degree in dentistry and general public health from Columbia University and a doctoral degree in epidemiologic sciences from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, she picked up the English language largely by listening.
“Part of my teaching philosophy stems from my own learning experiences as an immigrant with English as a second language and the other from my background in dentistry,” she says. “I work tirelessly at tailoring my teaching approach to accommodate the different learning styles of individual students and also to connect with students from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds.”
Her education taught her that what she really wanted to do was learn, and one of the best ways to learn, she found out first-hand, is to teach. “My passion lies in mentoring and teaching,” says Borrell, who joined CUNY in 2008 after teaching at Columbia University. “I love to go one-on-one with students; when they have an ‘aha’ moment, that is my biggest reward. And CUNY is what gives me that opportunity.”
The opening of the CUNY School of Public Health makes it easy for Borrell to connect with students whose learning experiences parallel her own. Like them, she went to a public university, and like many of them, she is an immigrant.
“The student body is highly minority,” she says, adding that CUNY offers a high-quality, low-cost program. “We have a dearth of minority researchers in this country yet we soon will be the majority of the population. In five to seven years, I hope we have a pipeline to fill this void. CUNY School of Public Health has the opportunity to do that.”
Borrell’s work with students continues far afield from the classroom. Her research focuses on what roles race/ethnicity, socioeconomic indicators and neighborhood conditions play in promoting disease and health, and students have many chances to get involved.
Recently she has been studying the role of race in the health of Hispanics, an area that has fallen through the cracks. “Because Hispanics can be of any race, I became interested in examining whether race would play a role in the health of this group,” she says. “My hypothesis -- that race will affect the health of Hispanics – has been bolstered by a study of mine on hypertension that clearly showed that Hispanics as a whole had a lower rate. But when it was broken down by race, the Hispanic advantage applied only to Hispanic whites. Hispanic blacks had a higher rate not only than Hispanic whites but also non-Hispanic whites. This changes the way we look at health disparities; it is all social.”
Borrell says that the CUNY School of Public Health will give her more opportunities to continue pursuing her research. She’s also focusing on the paradox of Hispanic mortality. “Hispanics have low incomes, low education and less access to health care, yet their mortality rates for infants and adults are lower than that of non-Hispanic blacks and whites,” she says. “It’s puzzling.”
Most of the data in this research area has focused on Mexicans, but this summer, Borrell, which the help of a doctoral student, is culling data on people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and South and Central America. “We’re going to examine whether the mortality advantage of Hispanics over non-Hispanics is observed regardless of the country of origin,” she says.
Borrell finds that working with interested and willing-to-learn students is invigorating. “My wish is that my students become better than I am,” she says, adding that it’s not unusual for her to be in the classroom or in her office until 8 or even 10 p.m. “I don’t hold anything back; I push them 150 percent to get 100 percent from them.”
The CUNY School of Public Health, she says, will encourage more people to enter the field. The city’s other school is at a private institution – Columbia University – and it accepts only four to 10 students each year per department.
“The CUNY School of Public Health benefits not only the students but also the community,” she says. “We live in a city whose residents have lots of health problems. We need to train more people in public health because the city’s health department can’t do it all alone. And I’m excited to be a part of that.”