Overcoming doubts, moving forward with life

School of Nursing graduate student embraces advocacy

Andrea Vega-Breaux
Determined to change the health care experience for other Latino families, Andrea Vega-Breaux chose to advance her education and prepare for a career in health advocacy.

Andrea Vega-Breaux understands all too well how health care systems can fail families when individuals are not placed in the center of care. Childhood experiences propelled her toward a career as a nurse. Her dream to advocate for improved health policy drove her to seek a master’s degree in leadership at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis.

Growing up in California’s Monterey County, Vega-Breaux and her six siblings had to step up and take roles unexpected from children so young, while their father worked long hours in the fields and their mother recovered from a disabling stroke.

“The system failed her and it failed us,” recalled Vega-Breaux, a UC Davis Medical Center nurse. “My mom was offered no support or help navigating her recovery. Providers essentially gave her a death sentence. But she moved in with my grandmother who, essentially, became her caregiver and nursed her back to health.”

Determined to change the health care experience for other Latino families, she embarked upon a degree in nursing. Early in her career she heard School of Nursing Founding Dean Heather M. Young speak at a conference, which prompted her to take the next step.

“When Dean Young told us that we could be the future leaders to change health care, I felt she was speaking directly to me,” said, Vega-Breaux, who received the Helen M. Thomson Scholarship for Nursing Leadership. “My goal is to advocate and give people the tools to succeed in their health, just like my mother gave me the tools to succeed in life.”

Salir adelante ― the phrase, meaning go forward with your life, that Vega-Breaux’s mother told her repeatedly growing up, echoes in her mind. Her past experiences now shape her future as she works to marry her clinical knowledge with a health-systems perspective to improve care for underserved populations.

“I’ve fought being a nurse who serves as the voice of a minority, wanting to overcome those stereotypes and prove myself professionally,” Vega-Breaux explained. “At the School of Nursing, I’m surrounded by such talented faculty who embrace diversity and show me how, what I saw as weakness, is my strength. It all comes full circle.” “Andrea embodies the core attributes of the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing,” explained Piri Ackerman-Barger, an assistant adjunct professor at the School of Nursing. “She is a leader; she is dedicated to inquiry and she is passionate about giving back to communities. I know that her life’s work will be to pay forward the opportunities she has received.”

Ackerman-Barger serves as Vega-Breaux’s thesis chair. Her research examines how understanding the experiences nursing students of color have while navigating the educational system can provide insight for nurse educators who want to meet the learning needs of their students from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds.

“I feel blessed to have the opportunity to work with Andrea,” Ackerman-Barger added. “With her intellectual acumen and openness to possibility, the future is wide open for her. I am excited to be on this journey with her.”

Vega-Breaux owes part of her journey to the Helen M. Thomson Scholarship for Nursing Leadership, which she received in 2015. In addition to school and her work at the medical center, Vega-Breaux volunteers at career fairs in her hometown of Greenfield, California, where she serves as an example for middle and high-school students interested in nursing.

“I hope to show them that I came from a similar background and have accomplished so much thanks to hard work and overcoming my doubts,” Vega-Breaux said. “I want to encourage them to salir adelante!