Transforming Tragedy into Triumph
Losing a family member is a painful experience that never seems to fade. For Justine Obiakor, the heartache from the loss of her brother still lingers 20 years later, but the experience gave her agency to become a force of change.
In May 2015, Justine graduated from San Diego State with a bachelor’s degree in health science with emphasis in public health offered through the College of Health & Human Services. Here at SDSU is where she had access to opportunities, she said, and people who would transform her life trajectory.
“Being here at State was like a fire under me to grow and develop, and that makes me want to give back,” said Justine, now a SDSU alum. “My Aztec Experience really changed my way of thinking in that I want to do something I’m passionate about.”
Justine was 4 years old when her older brother experienced a fatal allergic reaction to treatment for pneumonia. Hospital staff failed to note his allergies at check-in, a life-changing mistake Justine vowed to prevent from happening to someone else again. From that moment on she chose to focus on health as a career.
While the tragedy initially inspired Justine to pursue a nursing degree at San Jose State University, she transferred after one semester to SDSU so she could be closer to family.
A Turning Point
Soon after enrolling at SDSU, Justine changed her major to health science with a special focus on public health and immediately became involved in the university’s Health Promotion department. She also chose to minor in international security and conflict resolution, a program designed give students a deeper understanding of how culture, morality, politics and socioeconomics play a role in global conflict.
“Learning about public health and international conflict was really nice because it taught me how I could help other people,” she said. “Studying abroad in Thailand also really helped me with what I’m doing now with international health issues and policy.”
Eager to help other students find their own success, Justine’s Aztec Experience spanned across campus, serving as a Peer Health Educator within Health Promotion, as an academic mentor for sophomores and freshmen, and as a Peer Advisor in the SDSU Study Abroad Office.
Stephanie Waits, health educator in Health Promotion, said Justine’s passion and empathy are keys to the success of her work.
“She really takes in education, information, knowledge and experiences and combines that into her work to inspire her,” Waits added. “Her ability to draw from so many different disciplines is going to aid her in being able to do some really innovative and creative work.”
One project Justine completed as a peer educator focused on getting students under the influence of alcohol home safely. By collaborating with drivers of Lyft, a ride-sharing service, and late-night restaurants within the community, she helped send a message to students that there are alternative ways to get home safely at night.
“One of the things that’s unique about Justine is that she doesn’t attempt to change an individual, but really works with them on their behaviors to lead them to a healthier life,” Waits said. “She really works to understand difficult concepts about behavior change and how to apply those effectively, rather than trying to change the person fundamentally.”
The Power of Support
For Justine, her parents have served as major sources of support throughout her educational career. Her mother came to the United States from Culiacan, Mexico at the age of 15, and her father left his family in Owerri, Nigeria to come to the United States when he was 18 to attend Pasadena City College.
Alone in a foreign country, Justine said her father faced many barriers, yet managed to overcome challenges and succeed. His decades-long career spans multiple health care positions, including registered nurse, psychiatric technician and health services supervisor, among others.
“My father has always strived for me to achieve more than he has,” she said. “Coming to America, you can imagine the struggles he faced as a foreigner living alone at homeless shelters, juggling jobs and going to multiple community colleges, while managing to earn his associate’s degrees.”
Raised in a multicultural home, Justine said it was always important for her to know her roots.
“My parents moved to America for a better life and future, yet still managed to retain the cultures and values of their youth to pass onto their children. My family has been my fire and inspiration through it all because they came from very little and still managed to rise and excel,” she said.
A Sustainable Change
Justine’s Aztec Experience led her to an internship with the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network in San Diego, where she said she gained valuable insight and experience in the fields of grassroots organizing and public health policy. With the mentorship of Estralita Martin, assistant dean for student affairs in SDSU’s College of Sciences, she applied and was offered the internship this past summer.
“She really wants to help communities find better ways to communicate health issues,” Martin said. “She is very good at making people feel comfortable in talking about their issues with her, and this internship was a good opportunity to utilize her skills before she went off to graduate school.”
This fall, Justine heads to City University of London in England to begin a master’s program in health policy. She has a budding interest in international human rights law relating to health of underrepresented people and is considering law school for the future.
Her goal: to shape global health policy working with the United Nations or the World Health Organization.
“I don’t see any boundaries for her,” Martin said, “I see her as one of the people who, if she doesn’t have her own clinic that is helping people, she will be out there fighting for a cause.”
Justine said remembering her brother gives her the strength to work toward her goals, but she’s also found strength from within.
“Having come to SDSU and grown for the last four and a half years, it feels like home,” Justine said. “The university’s programs helped fuel my passions and my drive to think what I want to do is within my reach.”