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By Chris Ramirez

Inspiring Grad: Hannah Norberto, Bachelor of Science in Population Health

Hannah Norberto grew up in Sheep Springs, a small community on the Navajo Nation between Gallup and Shiprock.  While Norberto says her home was filled with love, it also carried challenges. Norberto remembers times when her grandmother, who was her primary caretaker growing up, couldn’t afford the demands of maintaining a household.  Norberto says she and her siblings couldn’t always rely on the next meal to come as her family barely survived living under the poverty line. 

“I remember times where my family often struggled with the financial strain of maintaining essential services like electricity and utilities in our Native community,” Norberto says.  “Reflecting on those times now, there was pervasive uncertainty about how my siblings, and I endured. My family persevered through hardships, struggling to make ends meet.”

Her family’s situation is hardly unique with nearly 36 percent of Navajo Nation households below the federal poverty threshold, compared to 13 percent of all households nationally, according to public data. As Norberto grew into a teenager, she wanted to make things better- not just for herself and her family, but for all people on the Reservation. 

By high school, Norberto earned her a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certificate through a high school/college pipeline program.  As a CNA, she had a front row view of the struggles of her community, particularly in the elderly population.  Then when she was 18 in March 2020, hardship turned into heartbreaking disaster. The COVID pandemic hit the Navajo Nation claiming lives disproportionately faster than any other community in the United States.  During the pandemic, Norberto lost her grandmother to cancer. Additionally, during her undergraduate journey at UNM, her older brother took his own life after struggling with a mental health crisis.

“Navigating this profound grief and loss helped me be motivated to change the trajectory of the struggle I was seeing all around me.”
If another health crisis hits my home again, I will be on the frontlines working to protect my people.
Hannah Norberto, Graduate, UNM College of Population Health

Norberto enrolled in The University of New Mexico College of Population Health with a keen interest in epidemiology. While in her senior year, she delved into research interning with the New Mexico Department of Health’s Emerging Infections Program.  Her research focused on outreach to Native communities in New Mexico, gathering information about current practices and policies related to data sharing and collaboration between the NMDoH, Tribal Epidemiology Centers, and Tribal communities. The primary purpose is to inform improvements in practice for the New Mexico Emerging Infections Program and more broadly for the Department of Health with respect to collaborating with Tribal communities. The goal of her aims to help create more culturally competent access to data and care.

“It makes me feel good as an Indigenous person because my research will continue after my internship ends.”  

After graduation, Norberto will be attending Brown University in Providence, RI to work on her Master of Public Health degree.  While attending school in Rhode Island will certainly create new experiences and allow her to explore new cultures and lifeways, her plan is to return home. Armed with the knowledge and information of how to help marginalized communities attain greater health outcomes and equity, she wants to apply her future skillsets in the community that raised her. 

“If another health crisis hits my home again, I will be on the frontlines working to protect my people.”   

One thing Norberto wants current and future students to know-- no matter where they come from-- is to remember T’áá hwó’ ají t’éego. This Navajo phrase is a teaching that instructs “it is all up to your effort and hard work and determination.” 

That phrase helps remind her of how powerful each of us truly are.

“When life gets hard, continue to strive,” Norberto says.

Categories: College of Population Health, Education