A ‘Gigantic Science Nerd’ in High School Advocates Opening Your Heart to New Experiences and Unexpected Paths

G.J. Melendez-Torres graduated from Wharton in 2011 with a BS in economics (health care management & policy) and the School of Nursing with a BS in nursing. He is now continuing toward a master’s degree in advanced practice and psychiatric/mental health nursing. Knowledge@Wharton High School’s Sherry Yang caught up with G.J. before graduation to discuss his various interests, including his deep involvement in interfaith issues outside the classroom.

An edited version of the transcript appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: This is Sherry Yang with Knowledge@Wharton High School, and today we have the pleasure of being with G.J. Melendez-Torres. He’s going to speak about his interests and how that has led him to pursue activities at both Wharton and the School of Nursing at Penn. G.J., if you could tell us a little bit about yourself to start off.

 

G.J. Melendez-Torres: Sure. I’m a senior in Wharton  and the School of Nursing, and at Wharton specifically, I study health care management and policy. Over my time at Penn, I’ve done a variety of different things. I’ve done research on health care on vulnerable populations and hospital care — how the poorest people in our inner cities have access to health care. I’ve done work around intercultural issues, and I think that’s really where the substance of my involvement outside the classroom comes from.

 

I chaired a group called the United Minorities Council, which is Penn’s oldest coalition of cultural groups. It’s around 25 groups, covers several thousand students, and its goal is to promote intercultural action and awareness among Penn students. I also served as a vice chair of Prism, which is an interfaith (involving people of different religious faiths) coalition at Penn. That was really rewarding, because I got to participate pretty extensively along with the team I worked with in its development and on the development of various interfaith initiatives. Finally, I also chaired university student government. That was a real trip. I just finished my term doing that. So it’s kind of exciting now to be at the end of all of this looking back.

 

KWHS: You’re involved in a lot of activities to do with interfaith. What do you feel is the driving force behind your interest in these activities?

 

Melendez-Torres: I think specifically that interfaith, as opposed to the intercultural work that I do, really came from the way I was raised. The community in which I grew up wasn’t terribly diverse, but our family friends were very diverse religiously. I found that was a really critical uniting factor. But it could also be an important destructive factor. I was fortunate to be raised in an environment where we did respect and we did celebrate a lot of different faith traditions.

 

But when I came to Penn, it wasn’t something that was terribly present either in business school or in nursing school. The summer after my sophomore year, I won a fellowship totally out of the blue to travel to the Middle East for two weeks. There I really saw a lot of interfaith action. I saw a lot of religious conflict. I saw a lot of the dynamics between functional interfaith relations and dysfunctional interfaith relations. Seeing the way those two oppose each other, the way they coexisted in the same space, really triggered my interest in these issues, and I think it brought me back to my own experiences with faith issues.

 

As someone who is religious, who does practice a religion, it’s an incredibly important part of my life. But I think what’s so important about interfaith work is that it’s one of those things we don’t really feel comfortable talking about as a society, whereas we do have the race dialogue and we do have the gender dialogue. Oftentimes, the religion dialogue gets lost in a lot of other issues – current events, political issues. I think the value behind interfaith action is that it allows us to breach these issues and to talk about these hard subjects in a way that’s relevant to everyone.

 

KWHS: What are some of the projects that you’ve become involved in or that this interest in interfaith has led you to do on Penn’s campus?

 

Melendez-Torres: [I was a resident advisor in the quad] as a junior and senior at Penn. I did it because I really enjoy the mentoring, working with [freshmen] and the team-building and community-building. One of the things I saw was that there was a lot of space for this interfaith discussion.

So, I combined that with the fact that I had become the vice chair of Prism, this interfaith coalition, and out of those two things, I created this new interfaith residential program. That’s been extremely challenging, but also very rewarding. Very challenging because I had no way of knowing what the interfaith background of the 22 freshmen in our program was going to be, but very rewarding in a sense that a lot of the program ended up running itself. When you create the right environment and when you give [students] the tools to discuss these issues, the amount of interfaith action and the amount of interfaith dialogue that can spark from that is really tremendous.

KWHS: How did you find the courage to step outside of your comfort zone and explore new ideas, along with this idea of pushing people to be comfortable to talk about interfaith issues? What would you recommend to others to push themselves out of their comfort zones.

Melendez-Torres: One of the challenges is that interfaith and more broadly intercultural issues [can’t necessarily] be taught in the classroom. You don’t learn how to deal with diverse groups of people in the classroom. You do team projects, but you don’t really get the chance to talk about the really crunchy, difficult issues that come with intercultural work.

I think that’s so important, because building really effective intercultural coalitions is important in business. Look at these large, international companies. One of the reasons they work is because they have a shared culture, but also because they respect the many different cultures of the employees where they reside. Also, I think that’s a key to social action and social change.

My path after Wharton is a little different in the sense that I’m going to graduate school for social policy (laws and activities that affect the living conditions beneficial to human welfare), and I’m not necessarily pursuing a career in banking. It’s not to say that I definitively don’t want to pursue a career in industry at any point, but it does mean that for now, my interest and long-term goals are to use [my] nursing education and use these interfaith issues, exposure and facilitation experience, and grounding that I received at Penn to effect social change, especially in the area of health care.

KWHS: Speaking of health care, where did your interest in mental health develop?

Melendez-Torres: That’s the final frontier of health care policy in my opinion. Mental health is a really difficult subject to talk about. It’s not like cancer or  the swine flu. It’s not like any of those other diseases or illnesses where you don’t necessarily bear any of the responsibility for it …. Mental health is one of the difficult issues to talk about because so many people still find it so difficult to deal with. It’s so incredibly stigmatized, and talking about mental health issues and bringing treatment to people is a really important part of it.

The way that our American health care system works, I don’t feel that we adequately deal with mental health issues and we don’t deal with them in a way that promotes continuity of care, which is so important. You need to develop a long-term relationship with your health care providers, with your mental health workers, to have that kind of a therapeutic effect and to make sure that the treatment is actually working.

Mental health policy is something that we don’t talk about, largely because we’re so uncomfortable with how to do it, but also because we just don’t know what we’re doing with mental health policy. I think broaching that subject is so important in order to actually make sure that those of us who have mental illness, those of us who are among the most vulnerable in our communities, have the opportunities to get access to the care that we need to get better.

KWHS: How do you feel that your business education has contributed to, or influenced, your pursuits in these other fields?

Melendez-Torres: It’s difficult to say and not necessarily because it hasn’t, but because the ways in which it has impacted my interest and all these other issues is so profound. For example, I don’t think I would have had the slightest, foggiest idea about how to begin looking at issues of health care policy, how to begin quantifying the problems that I was seeing in health care policy as I began my clinical work, if I hadn’t had a business education. I remember I had a kind of “a-ha!” moment. I was coming out of an OPIM (Operations and Information Management) 101 class, and I had recently had a clinical (study involving direct observation) in a prison. I had been working as a health educator in the Philadelphia prison system, and a lot of issues I saw in the prison system were totally mind-blowing. The kinds of things that you really wouldn’t expect to see in any civilized health care system.

But when I came to understand the way that process worked, the way that health care worked in the Philadelphia prison system, and as I began to frame that in the context of the knowledge I had gained in my Operations and Information Management class, in the context of the knowledge that I had gained in my finance classes and my accounting classes, it all began to make sense. What was so empowering was that it put me in the place where I knew I had the intellectual tools I needed to change what I saw that was wrong with these systems.

KWHS: You are a recipient of the Truman Scholarship and you are a Marshall scholar. There are a lot of great things happening in your life. What are some failures or missteps that you feel you’ve had and what have they taught you? What is your advice to those who have yet to graduate from college?

Melendez-Torres: I think the biggest thing, and this applies especially to freshmen and sophomores, was that I was absolutely terrified to take risks my first two years. A large part of the reason why I didn’t come to this intercultural and interfaith work until late in my second year of college was because I was so afraid and so crippled that I didn’t feel like I could actually attack these issues head on, that I couldn’t really get involved in them.

My most significant piece of advice for anyone who’s beginning their time in college or at Penn or wherever they end up, is to understand that you really need to take advantage of the opportunities that are given to you, to take advantage of the academic experimentation of the different classes, of the resources that are available to you early on. Without that, you’re not going to get the full experience. You’re going to get to where I am now. I’ve had a really rewarding experience, but think, ‘Wow, I could have been having that so much earlier, if I had really taken advantage of these resources.’

KWHS: What were you like in high school? Could you see yourself going down this path while you were there?

Melendez-Torres: Absolutely not. In high school, I was a gigantic science nerd. All I did was biology. I did some math. I also did a lot of work in classical languages, like Latin and ancient Greek. The idea that I’d be pursuing a career in social policy or that I’d be pursuing a career in health care, business or the health care industry was the farthest thing from my mind. Ultimately, I’m extremely glad I came down this path.  I feel like the path I’ve chosen for myself — and in many ways a path that has happened to me, because there are obviously things that I couldn’t have chosen for myself — has been tremendously rewarding.

You can’t predict where you’re going to be even between the end of your junior year of high school and the end of your freshman year in college. So many things can change, and being open to that change is an incredibly important part of the growth process. I think if anything, I’m glad I was open to the possibility of drastically changing what I thought I was going to do in college.

KWHS: What do you feel has been one of the most defining experiences that you’ve had in recent years?

Melendez-Torres: There are two or three defining moments, partly because it’s difficult to choose one. I think one of them came in my clinical experience, and it actually came fairly early during my time in clinical practice when I was just beginning to do the hands-on part of nursing school. I saw my first geriatric patient who also had very substantial mental health issues. That was really striking. Obviously, I can’t talk too much about it, because of patient confidentiality. But that was a very striking experience, and I think it was at that point that I really connected with my love and my interest in geriatric mental health issues. If I hadn’t seen Jack (we’ll call him Jack) that day in my clinical rotation, I don’t think I would ever have become interested in geriatric mental health issues. That’s definitely a patient who stuck with me, and even though I’m sure he doesn’t know this, I think he definitely inspired me to begin and to continue this path.

Another really important, defining experience came late in my term as chair of the United Minority Council. Earlier in the fall, we had an event where everyone had the chance to come together on College Green and talk individually about the challenges they faced in interculturalism — what they felt their stumbling blocks were, what they felt their challenges were, how they felt they were challenged by other people in some good ways and in some not so good ways.

The outcome of that was that I saw people be very open and honest about an issue that’s very difficult to talk about, but more importantly I think what I saw was that interculturalism is not just about race and ethnicity. It’s about gender. It’s about age. It’s about orientation. It’s about a lot of different things, and I think seeing that is so incredibly important to understanding the value of this work.

KWHS: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Melendez-Torres: Wow. At least that one isn’t as emotional as the last one. Where do I see myself in five years? I value the research and the policy work that I do now and that I’ll be able to do once I finish graduate school. But I also really value the clinical work because I think that it keeps it real, so to speak. It’s what keeps me in touch with why I feel this work is important. I at least hope to be in a position that combines research, that combines health care policy and that combines clinical practice, specifically in geriatric mental health or geriatric primary care. I think that all three of those pieces — the research, the policy and the practice — are what tie everything together.

I know things don’t always turn out as we plan, and obviously I’m open to change, but if I really had my way, that’s where I’d be. I’d be doing each of those things, because each of those things makes me very happy. It makes me feel like I’m contributing in very different ways.

KWHS: Thank you very much for your time and for being with us today.

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