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Star of the Month

January 2024

Laura Sofia Valderrama Figueroa
Bloomberg School of Public Health

Congratulations to our Star of the Month for January, Laura Sofia Valderrama Figueroa from the Bloomberg School of Public Health! Through the Baltimore Action Projects program, Laura is currently working with our partners at Asylee Women Enterprise to improve food access for its clients. Read our interview below to learn more about her experience serving our community!

Tell us a little bit about yourself! What brought you to the Bloomberg School of Public Health?

Hello everyone! ¡Hola a todos! I am Laura Sofia Valderrama Figueroa, a second year MSPH  student in the Human Nutrition program of the International Health (IH) Department at Bloomberg School of Public Health (BSPH). I was born and raised in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, before pursuing my undergraduate and graduate degree in the mainland U.S. For two years, I worked as a research assistant in Dr. Jodi McGill’s lab at Iowa State University. I was involved in projects examining the immune response to respiratory pathogens, such as bovine respiratory syncytial virus (bRSV) and Mannheima haemolytica. 

Being involved in these projects drove my interest in public health, specifically the interaction between infectious diseases and nutrition. I decided to pursue these interests at BSPH because the IH curriculum offered the flexibility of taking core nutrition courses and electives in epidemiology and food systems. I was also impressed by the faculty and staff's approachability, which meant I could acquire mentoring opportunities across departments. Finally, one of the main reasons I came to Baltimore and BSPH was the opportunity to engage in community work, which I could do through SOURCE and student-led organizations. 


Can you share a little background about your experience in the Baltimore community through your work with Asylee Women Enterprise? What made you want to get involved and what work are you doing?

I became interested in food access and Baltimore’s community-based organizations after completing the Baltimore Food Systems: A Case Study of Urban Food Environments and Food Insecurity and Nutrition: Partnering with Community Organizations to Make Change courses. I was inspired to put the practical skills and knowledge gained in these courses in a real-life setting. Therefore, when I came across SOURCE’s Baltimore Action Project (BAP) partnership with Asylee Women Enterprise (AWE), I immediately jumped at the opportunity to help their Outreach and Benefits Program evaluate and improve food access among its clients.

A fresh produce donation from Bliss Meadow Farms

At AWE, I assist Mahali, the Outreach and Benefits Specialist, with food access efforts. For the past few months, I have used ArcGIS mapping software to make a map of a select list of food distribution resources across Baltimore City. The map will be part of a booklet containing information about the days and hours of operation and services provided by these resources. Food access is often restricted by lack of transportation. Therefore, the booklet also gives clients the closest available public transportation route, which they can access via a QR code. The final product will be distributed among AWE’s clients to increase awareness of food access beyond those AWE offers.  

Another of my key roles within AWE is to assist in screening and enrolling clients in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Before working with AWE, all I knew about SNAP was through scholarly article discussions offered by my core nutrition courses. However, at AWE, I have gained a deeper understanding of the systemic barriers that refugees, asylum seekers, and foreign-borne human trafficking survivors face when applying for public benefits.  These barriers include, but are not limited to, limited language interpreters, lack of capacity in government agencies, and delayed notifications regarding the redetermination process. In the next few months, I look forward to addressing these barriers to continue helping clients access public benefits while leading nutrition class and re-planting AWE’s garden.


What service projects does your organization have planned in the future? Are there any activities where others can get involved?

AWE offers a variety of service activities for community members to engage in! The organization offers a community lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays prepared by group volunteers. Other service activities that individuals can help with include:

  • Delivery food to home-bound clients
  • Teaching cultural orientation and ESL to newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees.
  • Donating food and supplies to the organization’s pantries.

People interested in volunteering or donating can visit the following links: Volunteering at AWE and Donating Food or Supplies.


"Some days, it may feel like you have multiple hurdles to help someone access public benefits. However, there is no better feeling for me than getting a SNAP application approved for AWE and community clients, even if it takes time, patience, and grit."


How does your community work complement what you're learning in the classroom at the School of Public Health?

As a student with multiple public health interests, I have enjoyed the flexibility of BSPH’s International Health curriculum. For my nutrition course, I took classes that taught me about the determinants of health, nutrition policies, urban food systems, nutrition throughout life, and food access initiatives in Baltimore. Furthermore, I complemented these courses with electives that would enhance my public health skills, including epidemiological methods, spatial analysis, and scientific grant writing. 

I incorporated key concepts learned through my coursework, such as food security, cultural competence, mapping, and community-based collaborations, into my food distribution booklet. More importantly, I have been able to understand how food insecurity, access to public benefits, and lack of cultural awareness affect AWE clients. Refugees, asylum seekers, and human trafficking survivors are disproportionately affected by food insecurity. Unstable employment, legal status, and access to transportation often limit these communities’ access to nutritious food. 

Therefore, I created the food distribution booklet with the goal of improving food access among AWE and community clients, considering their linguistic and transportation needs. As native Spanish speaker, I took the opportunity to make a Spanish and English version of the booklet since approximately 60% of the organization’s clients come from Latin America. Furthermore, my community-based work aims to incorporate cultural awareness, trauma-informed practices, mapping software outputs, and food access initiatives, which I have learned through previous leadership involvements, BSPH coursework, and my training at AWE.


AWE fills its space with encouraging and hopeful messages for its staff and clients

What advice would you give to other students looking to engage in service-learning in Baltimore?

Partnering with AWE has been a highlight of my time at BSPH. On my first day at AWE, I was surrounded by peace, joy, support, and community. I have encountered great people who are passionate about service to others and genuinely want to address the multiple barriers that exist for vulnerable individuals. I advise students who wish to participate in service-learning opportunities to identify an organization that speaks to you and your objectives as a future public health professional.

Secondly, ask yourself what skills you can bring to the organization to help meet their community needs while remaining open-minded to learn new things. Thirdly, take time to meet the organization's staff and clients through community activities. You never know who can become a mentor. Finally, do not be afraid to open your heart to the community. I often tell people that I love Baltimore as a city, but also that I love the person I have evolved into because of the impact that community engagement and its people have had on me. I am grateful for SOURCE and AWE because they have enabled me to find my purpose in public health! 

A child picks out a gift during AWE’s Holiday community potluck. Each client and their family had the opportunity to choose household items, toys, and hygiene products during the event.

What is the most important experience you’ve had or thing you’ve learned through this work?

I have had such an eye-opening experience at AWE. Prior to joining the organization, I had no experience working with refugees, asylum seekers, and [people who have survived experiences of human trafficking]. As part of my training and community work, I have had the opportunity to learn the legal process these individuals go through as newcomers in the U.S. Additionally, I have a better understanding of the systemic barriers that limit their access to public benefits and health care. That’s why AWE’s job is so crucial. AWE supports these people with various resources that help them heal from trauma and improve their access to food and medical care while promoting community among their clients.

The biggest takeaway from my Baltimore Action Project with AWE is that every situation is different regardless of whether a group shares the same legal status. That is where the power of advocacy is crucial in assisting these communities. Some days, it may feel like you have multiple hurdles to help someone access public benefits. However, there is no better feeling for me than getting a SNAP application approved for AWE and community clients, even if it takes time, patience, and grit. Through this work, I have also learned the importance of living your purpose in service to others. This experience has reaffirmed the desire to continue addressing the systemic barriers that exist for underserved communities, whether in the nonprofit sector, federal agencies, or as a future physician. I have no better way to describe my time at AWE than with a quote by Dolores Huerta - "The fight for justice is not easy, but necessary.”  


Laura, we thank you for your commitment and outstanding service to our Baltimore community!