Quacyya Cuaresma starts with small changes to fuel grand ambitions

by Matt Jardin  |   

Quacyya Cuaresma posing at UAA
Health sciences senior Quacyya Cuaresma was named one of nine 2020 AHAINA Students of Excellence and one of two to receive the accompanying scholarship award. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Health sciences senior Quacyya Cuaresma had no trouble keeping busy during quarantine. Simply known as Q to her friends and family, Cuaresma began the application process to be considered one of the 2020 African American, Hispanic, Asian, International and Native American (AHAINA) Students of Excellence back in January 2020.

Life as we know it changed since then, and so did the application process. While juggling her own coursework and extracurricular commitments, Cuaresma organized her ePortfolio — a multimedia collection of accomplishments, a sort of resume 2.0 — secured her letters of recommendation and underwent the interview process.

Cuaresma’s hard work paid off. She was named one of nine 2020 AHAINA Students of Excellence and one of two to receive the accompanying scholarship award.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be an obstacle for many, but Cuaresma also sees it as a reaffirmation of her career aspirations to pursue public health and health education. Across the country around the world, demonstrations of effective public health leadership abound. 

“Making change through public health is really important,” said Cuaresma. “Policy such as the stimulus checks that we’re seeing now gives people the opportunity to get back on their feet or helps underprivileged people find opportunities, and all of that involves health in some way. So making those changes, helping disparities, providing access to health care and all of these behind-the-scenes concepts that are overlooked a lot of the time is what I’d like to do more of.”

By the way she passionately talks about public health, it’s surprising to discover that Cuaresma wasn’t always so sure about what she wanted to do with her future. Broadly knowing she was interested in health care, she originally enrolled to be a nurse, not yet knowing what other careers existed in the field.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long for Cuaresma to change course. During her first semester, she joined UAA’s student government organization, the Union of Students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (USUAA), where she was introduced to policy and advocacy.

“We did such great work and that really made a difference in my life and compelled me to take on the policy aspect of health,” said Cuaresma. “I’m happy I went through those experiences to figure out my passion and what I want to do with my future. Nursing would have been awesome, but I realized I’m not fit for clinical or medical. There’s so much in this world and there are other careers that we can incorporate our passions into. It’s funny to see the possibilities.”

In addition to student government, Cuaresma stays involved on campus by being part of a sorority, the name of which she can’t reveal due to her other role as president of the Panhellenic Council, the governing body of UAA’s sororities. She also flexes her policymaking muscles through her involvement with Model United Nations and is getting a head start in public health by serving as a UAA Peer Health Educator.

While she didn’t always know her exact career path, Cuaresma always knew she enjoyed going the extra mile by serving in leadership positions. Born and raised in Anchorage, she attributes the confidence she has to pursue those roles to her immigrant parents, as well as to the teachers that recommended her for her earliest leadership opportunities. 

“I have a very rich Asian American identity that led to my achievements in life because of the resilience of my family members and their embodying the American dream,” said Cuaresma. “Starting in middle school, it made me feel special to be honored for my leadership qualities and how I did in class. Then it becomes a momentum thing where you keep building experience and love for leadership and advocacy and you never stop wanting to take on the challenging roles.” 

Slated to graduate in spring 2021, Cuaresma plans to jump right into the public health field as a health education specialist in a position to create public health campaigns and programs. According to her, the incremental changes she’s been able to make during her time at UAA with student government has perfectly primed her to make a lasting impact in the wider community. 

“Trying to make a change on a large scale starts with making change in your own community and in your own institution,” said Cuaresma. “That’s why I’m so involved with UAA because I want to make a change on a smaller scale before I head into the world and take on the whole concept of public health and health disparities.”


This story originally appeared in the UAA Green and Gold News.