Erica Terrell: Healthy plans

Erica Terrell (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

By Peggy Townsend,

Growing up in a city the FBI once ranked the 15th most dangerous in the United States, Erica Terrell would walk home from school past drunks asking for money, past gang graffiti, past kids who had dropped out of school.

As much as Terrell loved her community of Compton, Calif., she knew there were things that needed to be changed. Today, Terrell is a senior American studies major at UC Santa Cruz with the goal of doing just that: helping her hometown become a healthier place to live.

"Change isn't going to happen if people are not willing to step up," said the 20-year-old.

Terrell's parents had always emphasized college as the key to success, but until she got to junior high, Terrell said, she was largely an unmotivated student. Then, she was enrolled in a program emphasizing math, science, and engineering. Teachers set goals and there were academic matches.

"My competitive side kicked in," Terrell said.

By the time she was 16, Terrell was enrolled in the King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, doing cancer research at a nearby hospital.

"We were looking at multi-drug resistance in prostate cancer," Terrell said. "I was culturing cancer cells and treating them with different chemotherapy drugs."

The lab became a sanctuary for Terrell and set her on a path to UCSC.

It was in Santa Cruz that Terrell discovered markets filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. In Compton, liquor stores had dotted most corners and markets were stocked with candy and cheap, processed foods.

It wasn't hard to see the end product of that kind of economic and development planning: obesity, diabetes, and substance abuse. So with the inspiration of professors like Reyna Ramirez, Aaronette White, and Andrea Steiner, Terrell turned her focus toward public health policy.

Working this summer to revise the master plan for Richmond, Calif., Terrell helped write a checklist for new development that included public health components like open space, wider sidewalks, and restrictions on liquor stores.

Her own life also became a reflection of her studies. With healthier eating and regular trips to the gym, the 5-foot-2 Terrell lost 25 pounds in nine months and found herself filled with energy and focus.

"In my freshman year, I would fall asleep in class," Terrell said. Last year, she took five classes, had a job, and earned a 3.57 GPA. To her, that was concrete evidence of the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.

With the aid of two alumni scholarships that totaled $5,000, Terrell is continuing her education at UCSC. "The support of the Alumni Association lifted a tremendous burden during my junior and senior year," she said. It also added to her overall confidence as a student.

She is now applying to graduate school with plans to use her education, not for personal gain, but for the gain of her hometown by working for health policy changes.

"At the end of the day, there's no place like home," Terrell said, "and I want to make the best of it for someone else."

For information about the Alumni Association Scholarship Fund, visit the Alumni Association web site.