Back in December 2017, when she was applying to graduate school, Nicole Mercado Anazagasty had much more on her mind than being accepted into her dream program: Master of Public Health at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
She was back home in her native Puerto Rico, which just a couple of months earlier had been devastated by Hurricane Maria.
San Germán, a town in the southwestern region of the island where Mercado Anazagasty grew up with her parents and younger sister, was without electricity and running water.
She and her sister, Jessica, would drive a couple of towns over to a gas station/fast food restaurant. Borrowing the internet connection, they would sit in their car and work on their college applications in the afternoon heat.
“It was hard, and mentally challenging with so many difficulties happening,” Mercado Anazagasty recalled. “It was not only a matter of daily survival, but we also wanted to remain focused on our futures. My parents are fighters, and they raised us that way. It’s been my way of thinking throughout my life.”
Both sisters got accepted into graduate school — Jessica in the School Psychology program at UC Riverside, and Nicole at the Keck School.
‘A blessing in disguise’
In mid-May this year, Nicole Mercado Anazagasty earned her master’s degree in public health, with a concentration in community health promotion and a sub-concentration in health communications.
“It was just such a great experience,” she said of her two years at the Keck School. “Not only was I able to benefit from an excellent education, but I was able to build strong connections with other students as a peer adviser and communications intern.”
Fittingly, Mercado Anazagasty had to endure a couple of other challenges before participating in a virtual graduation on May 15.
She was back in Puerto Rico at the end of 2019 after the island was hit with a series of earthquakes, forcing many residents into shelters. Natural disasters like this inspired Mercado Anazagasty to focus her graduating capstone project on developing an emergency preparedness plan to prevent disease outbreaks, such as dengue, in Puerto Rico’s refugee shelters.
“Through my career, I hope to get funding for projects like this that aid emergency preparedness efforts on the island,” she said.
And then COVID-19 hit. The pandemic further underscored her passion to spend a career in emergency preparedness and disaster relief.
“It’s a blessing in disguise to have lived what I’ve lived through,” said Mercado Anazagasty, 30.
Currently, Mercado Anazagasty is toiling remotely in California for an Indiana company as a multi-case group agent during the pandemic. She helps manage larger COVID-19 outbreaks, such as those at school districts, universities and long-term care facilities.
“Every week I’m learning something new about COVID — how people interact and how to keep people safe,” she said.
She plans to parlay this knowledge and experience and return home to Puerto Rico, hopefully next year, to help with the post-COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters.
“We go through hurricane season yearly in Puerto Rico, and the recent earthquakes are still ongoing, and people are still losing their homes,” she said.
Mercado Anazagasty graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial microbiology from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.
Planning to pursue a career as a pharmacist, she earned a certificate in health sciences from UC Berkeley in 2014 and after that completed an internship at a pharmacy in Fullerton. But she discovered that instead of dispensing medication from behind a counter, or working one-on-one with patients, her career goals were aligned more with public health and helping communities on a larger scale and working to solve health disparities.
“I’m looking for ways to help with public health during and after the pandemic,” Mercado Anazagasty said of plans to return home. “And it’s not just the pandemic, it’s the earthquakes and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Hopefully, I’m lucky enough to land a job where I can help my people.”
When she’s not working, Mercado Anazagasty enjoys yoga and dancing Bomba, a traditional drum-heavy dance and musical style of Puerto Rico with roots in the island’s Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Meanwhile, Mercado Anazagasty continues to beat down challenges on the job.
Passionate and tough-skinned, she frequently relies on a favorite saying she and her sister like to tell themselves — one they frequently repeated during those hot days in the car when they were applying to graduate school.
“Most people fail,” she said. “But I’m not most people.”