UNE student from Colombia channels passion for helping others in her public health journey

Catalina Piedrahita
Catalina Piedrahita, M.P.H. '24, grew up in Colombia and credits her upbringing for her natural desire to help others.

Nearly 3,000 miles away from her home country of Colombia, Catalina Piedrahita is in the home stretch of earning her Master of Public Health degree from UNE Online, the culmination of years of hard work, persistence, and a passion for helping others that is rooted in her upbringing.

Piedrahita, who graduates in 2024, spent the early part of her career working as a general practitioner in a rural Colombian community. She quickly learned how to provide care any way she could using very limited resources.

“You have to be creative to work (in that environment),” Piedrahita said. “But it was also a very rewarding experience.”

Piedrahita’s passion for public health stems from her natural desire to help the communities around her, especially underserved populations. She credits her parents for that part of her personality.

“Both of my parents had this sense of service,” Piedrahita said. “My father was also a general practitioner so I had contact with this kind of world growing up.” She said her mother, while not a physician, was widely known in her community for helping others.

Eventually, Piedrahita decided to move to the United States and found her way to Maine. However, she could not practice medicine in the US because she was not officially licensed, even though she was a trained physician in Colombia.

“It’s a long process,” she said. “It takes a big commitment because you have to take these tests to earn your medical license. And I had other circumstances in my life that prevented me from doing that.”

Despite the roadblocks, Piedrahita still felt a desire to work in public health and help her community in any way she could. The human trafficking services program at the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, Maine, provided that opportunity.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me because I didn’t know much about human trafficking before,” Piedrahita said.

At Preble Street, Piedrahita learned how to identify signs of trafficking and find resources for survivors using a trauma-informed approach.

“It opened up a whole new world for me,” she said. “I started learning about what happens to someone when they go through substance abuse disorder, or what happens when they experience homelessness.”

Preble Street’s real-world education inspired her to think about growing her career. She knew she wanted to stay in public health, and, after a quick online search, the UNE Online Master in Public Health program immediately jumped out at her.

“It really is a great program. It is comprehensive and has everything you need to know about public health,” Piedrahita said, noting the professors bring relatable real-world experience to their curriculum. Piedrahita also felt support from the UNE community, even though her coursework was online.

Piedrahita currently balances her time between school and work at the Maine Department of Labor’s Healthcare Workforce Initiative, a program created in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to train or help healthcare professionals find additional opportunities.

Once she earns her master’s degree from UNE, Piedrahita has her eyes set on continuing her public health journey, working with nonprofits or public health programs in government agencies to help small communities. She said her mentors through her years of experience have taught her that public health cannot use a one-size-fits-all approach.

“If you don’t listen to (the community’s) needs, if you don’t assess the situation based on their feedback, you won’t truly help them,” she said. “This is interdisciplinary work, just one branch of the effort to help others. And I know I can be that bridge between the people who sometimes have the smallest voices and those who make the decisions.”