An Advocate for All

An Advocate for All

By Madeline Swanson

Carmelita Perrien Naccarato grew up listening to her mother tell stories. As a correctional clinical psychologist, many of her mother’s accounts described the myriad of physical and mental health challenges her clients faced navigating America’s prison system. From a young age, Carmelita grappled with questions of justice and well-being.

“It was impossible for me to grow up in that environment and not want to help people,” she reflected.

Carmelita at the 2019 Health Equity High School Summit discussing water contaminants called PFAS and environmental justice.
As a participant in the 2018 annual Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) Symposium, Carmelita presented her research on fentanyl analogs, some of which have the potential to be new rescue drugs for opioid overdoses.

In search of answers, she came to the University of Michigan as a pre-med student. But after joining the Health Sciences Scholars Program (HSSP) her first semester, she discovered that the field of public health was her true calling.

At U-M’s No. 5 ranked School of Public Health (SPH), students like Carmelita practice health advocacy on a large scale, creating and disseminating resources that positively impact the health and well-being of entire communities.

A group of students sitting on a large painted rock
After The Rock had been defaced with anti-Latinx slurs, Carmelita and others painted over the slurs with “Unidos Seguimos,” which translates to “Together We Continue.”

By sophomore year, Carmelita’s budding interest in healthcare began to intersect with her passion for social justice, and she was eager to get more involved with health advocacy on campus.

That’s when she discovered the Spectrum Center and joined the programming board, which helps to plan campus events and coordinate awareness campaigns like World AIDS Day. The Spectrum Center serves as a collaborative space that helps students thrive in a diverse society by enhancing the campus climate and support services for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff.

“It was important to me to be involved in the LGBTQ+ community on campus because I had fewer opportunities to do that where I grew up,” Carmelita said. “Our weekly programming board meetings make me look forward to Thursdays.”

Working at the Spectrum Center has since had a profound effect on her U-M experience and her efforts as an advocate for marginalized populations—important work that would not go unnoticed.

Nearly a year after joining the programming board, Carmelita received an email from staff at the Spectrum Center with some exciting news.

She had received the first-ever John D. Evans Foundation Scholarship, which provides need-based support to students who are staunch advocates in the LGBTQ+ community. Generous donor support and additional financial assistance has enabled Carmelita to stay involved at the Spectrum Center and explore other organizations like the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), where she was first introduced to the Traynor Lab in the Pharmacology Department. At the lab, Carmelita helps to investigate how the drug fentanyl interacts with the body in hopes of creating a new, and more effective opioid rescue drug.

Group of students pose around a large block M at a research symposium.
As a member of Health Equity High School Summit Board, Carmelita facilitated small group discussions about health equity, helping to empower the next generation of healthcare leaders.

And when she’s not busy conducting research, you may find her connecting with prospective students as a student ambassador through the Undergraduate Admissions Office, volunteering in the Emergency Medicine Department at Michigan Medicine, working on a political campaign, or teaching Detroit high school students how to be champions of healthy communities at the Health Equity High School Summit.

Carmelita talking about health equity with a high school student
Carmelita at the 2019 Health Equity High School Summit discussing water contaminants called PFAS and environmental justice.

Whether it’s advancing AIDS awareness, researching solutions for drug addiction, or engaging with teenagers, Carmelita continues paving the way for a more healthy and equitable world—work she strives to continue after graduation.

“While I am interested in treating illnesses, what really captivates me is addressing the social inequities at the root of these issues.”

The John D. Evans Foundation Scholarship was established by C-SPAN co-founder and philanthropist John D. Evans (AB ’66), whose foundation supports social justice, AIDS vaccine research, environmental protection, technological innovation, education, and the arts.

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