Three weeks ago on a brisk Thursday evening in McLane Hall, as PH 210 Health Policy Analysis was underway, a single rose sat atop the desk usually occupied by public health graduate student Ana Tapia. Tapia’s classmates had placed that vibrant red rose there as a symbol of solidarity, meant to keep alive the spirit of Tapia, who passed away suddenly in a car accident on the evening of November 7th, 2014. The 22-year-old, in her first year in the Master of Public Health Program, was known to light up the classroom with her effervescent curiosity and thirst for knowledge, that not only inspired her fellow classmates, but professors as well.
Much like the rose itself, Tapia was as unique and gentle as the petals, but like the thorns that adorn the rose, she possessed a tenacious spirit that followed her throughout her life – a life that family, friends and colleagues say was cut far too short.
On the morning of Nov. 7th, Ana visited her old stomping grounds in the offices of Fresno State’s Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) to film a promotional training video for peer mentors. As a former peer mentor in the program, Ana wanted to give advice to future mentors and help them become more effective in their positions mentoring first-generation, low-income and educationally disadvantaged students on campus. That is just the person she was – someone always willing to help.
It was also her way of giving back to a program that was there for her when she first began at Fresno State. Ana was a first generation college student, who came to America from Mexico at the age of six. Growing up in the rural town of Fowler, she experienced firsthand the struggles of her farm worker parents. That drive and passion to further herself in order to help her family set the catalyst for her academic career.
Ana’s time as a mentor in the EOP program was highly impactful, said Mui Vuong, executive director of the EOP Program. Her gentle and compassionate nature made her the ideal mentor.
“The way she talked to students was full of kindness and sincerity,” said Vuong. “She was not only a mentor to these students, but became their friend and confidante. She really wanted students to succeed, both academically and in their personal lives. As committed and busy as she was, she always made time for her students and gave 110% of her energy.”
Under the EOP program, Ana became involved in the Students Organizing for Success (SOS) club and later became president of the club. During her one-year term, she coordinated various community service projects for her and her fellow students, with organizations such as the Marjaree Mason Center and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Her leadership set the standard for the then new club and brought it to another level, said Vuong.
Ana’s colleague, friend and fellow mentor at the time, Pang Thao, recalls moments when Ana would go the extra mile for her students, walking them to a destination on campus that they were unfamiliar with or simply staying behind after hours, during EOP academic advising sessions, because she was the type to go above and beyond expectations.
“Ana encouraged students to never give up on their dreams,” said Thao. “She truly cared about the students that she advised and she really cared about helping others succeed. Without a doubt, Ana impacted many people’s lives.”
Striving For Academic Success
Ana initially began her academic career at Fresno State in the fall of 2010. She made the best of her time at college, taking advantage of every opportunity that came her way. She was an active member of countless clubs and organizations on campus, including the Education and Leadership Foundation, Health Career Opportunities Program, Phi Kappa Phi and the Golden Key International Honor Society amongst others.
Perhaps her proudest involvement on campus was her pursuit of a degree in public health. Ana’s professors and friends say her greatest dream was to help her community, especially populations residing from disadvantaged backgrounds. She planned to graduate with her master’s degree and go on to become a community health educator, where she would play a role in educating underserved communities about public health issues impacting their lives.
Dr. Vicki Krenz, chair in the Department of Public Health, was Ana’s undergraduate advisor for four years, and says Ana’s tenacious spirit and driven outlook on education made her the model student.
“Ana embodied all the core values we strive for in our students,” said Krenz. “I’ve worked at Fresno State for 25 years and have seen thousands of students walk through my doors, but I can say with certainty, that Ana is one that stood out. She was the personification of professionalism.”
Krenz recalls the many times Ana would show up her office door in J Wing of McLane Hall, every knock followed by her signature bright-eyed smile. Every visit was with purpose, either to ask a question or seek a solution to an answer. “She was so dedicated and fully invested to her education and always wanted to grasp on to everything. She never had a moment to waste and did everything with her vision in mind.”
Ana received her bachelor’s of science degree in public health (with an emphasis in community health) in May 2014, graduating with prestigious magna cum laude honors. She was also nominated as a Dean’s Medalist for the Department of Student Affairs.
Thanks in large part to the full-ride Alice E. and Paul J. Sr. Vincent Memorial Scholarship, Ana was able to pursue her great dream of fulfilling her studies in higher education, said Dr. Helda Pinzon-Perez, Ana’s public health professor, who also delivered the eulogy at Ana’s November 17th memorial service. The scholarship, which is mainly for students pursing undergraduate degrees, made an exception for Ana, who was able to receive it for her graduate studies as well. She was the first person to receive this honor.
Pinzon-Perez said she will remember Ana as a great inspiration to her classmates and faculty in the public health department; one who was always willing to help others and had the most positive attitude in life. “Her legacy lives on through our department, where her spirit serves as a reminder of the true value of education. Students like Ana made faculty, such as myself, feel appreciative of the work we put in.”
A Life of Service
Ana dreamt of a career that enabled her to give back to underserved communities – but much more than that, she wanted to share in her dreams with those closest to her. A smile comes to the face of Ana’s good friend, Laura Rosales, as she remembers the time she asked Ana what she wanted to do after graduation. Ana responded by saying she wanted to start up a nonprofit organization to help those in rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley. She wanted to include Rosales, whose goal is to become a physician assistant and their other good friend, Norma Tovar, whose goal is to become a psychologist.
“We knew it would be a long road to achieve this dream, but Ana was very determined and encouraged us to sign up for this idea,” said Rosales. “Our careers would definitely contribute to this organization, so we all agreed it was a perfect idea to help others in need. Thanks to Ana’s thoughtfulness and compassion, Norma and I will one day accomplish fulfilling our dream of a starting a non-profit organization in the San Joaquin Valley in her honor.”
In June 2014, a month after graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Ana began an internship at the Central Valley Health Policy Institute (CVHPI). Lauren Lessard, post graduate research fellow and one of Ana’s supervisors, said Ana exhibited a natural passion for educating the community.
“Ana came to us knowing she could impact individuals, but wanted to help whole populations, especially with young women and children and those facing teen pregnancy,” said Lessard. “She wanted to help these individuals realize their hopes and dreams, while also finding solutions to problems effecting their lives and communities.”
Ana displayed such zest and dedication for the work she was doing that the CVHPI offered her a paid position after her three-month internship came to a close. She would go on to work during the day at CVHPI and afterwards, made the daily trek across Shaw Avenue to the Fresno State campus where she would continue with her night classes, studying long into the night.
“Ana’s passion for educating the community was exciting to witness,” Lesssard continued. “She truly wanted to understand the disparities facing the Central Valley. She was just so committed.”
The CVHPI recently announced the development of the Ana Tapia Memorial Research Internships, a research training opportunity developed in honor of the life and achievements of Ana. The internship is designed for students from the Central Valley, enrolled at Fresno State pursuing a degree in public health, with an interest in, and passion for, health issues and challenges in the Latino community, specifically Latina health issues.
An on campus memorial will be held tonight in honor of Ana’s life. The memorial, coordinated by the Department of Public Health and student club EsTuDios, will be at 6:00 p.m. in the Satellite Student Union and will include speakers led by Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro. Donations to the Ana Tapia Memorial Fund to assist the family can be made at Bank of America (account No. 325047565720) or online at www.gofundme.com/hacd0c