Beautiful Minds: Spreading her wings

Friday, March 30, 2012

Monica Garcia-Perez is conducting research involving first- and second-generation children of immigrants the fastest-growing segment of the population. Photograph by Heidi Shub 05.

Growing up poor in a lower-class family in Venezuela, Monica Garcia-Perez had no inkling that she someday would hold degrees from three different universities on three separate continents. All she knew is that she didn’t want to clean house for anybody.

“I was the first in my family from my generation to go to university and the only one to go to graduate school,” said Garcia- Perez who attended public grade school because it was free. She remembers telling her grandmother how she hated cleaning the house and her grandmother told her that if she was going to be able to afford to hire someone to clean for her, she’d have to get a good education.

Garcia-Perez parlayed that education into a ticket that would take her places she never dreamed. By achieving excellent grades and working hard, she earned scholarships and fellowships and never once had to incur debt.

Today Garcia-Perez is a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Economics at St. Cloud State University and is conducting research on a topic not only near to her heart, but of great significance.

Towards the end of the year, García-Pérez is expected to publish research regarding child health outcomes of immigrant children and children of immigrants. Garcia-Perez and her husband, Darin Cort, were expecting their first child, Annabel, as this edition of Outlook went to press.

The importance of her research is tied to a major national demographic shift. First- and second-generation children of immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of the population. Understanding health-care access and health outcomes will have political, social and public-policy implications. Economists and other academics have explored immigrant health issues in the past, but few have examined these issues through succeeding generations, said García-Pérez.

Among the questions she is studying: Why do non-citizen Hispanics and Asians self-report higher levels of health among their children despite lower access to traditional health care? She also looks at the use of social networks, entrepreneurship, and immigration effects on local economies.

Garcia-Perez was 21 when she graduated with a degree in economics from the Universidad Central de Venezuela in 1999. Thanks to a mother who pushed her to achieve good grades, a father whose hard work allowed her to afford her books and daily expenses and professors who became her mentors, she realized she could further her education anywhere in the world. It wasn’t long before she was off to get her master’s degree in economics from the University College London. From there, she came to the United States to obtain her Ph.D. degree in Economics from the University of Maryland – College Park, a top 20 economic school.

The process of applying for schools as an international student was overwhelming, but Garcia-Perez was fortunate to land a graduate assistantship with the U.S. Census Bureau that not only provided her with needed finances, but also helped hone her desire to research issues important to immigrants.

“The Center for Economic Studies was the perfect platform for me,” she explained. While many in her department were concerned about purely the “numbers,” Garcia-Perez was intrigued by the stories behind them.

Garcia-Perez hopes to have a draft of her research completed by this summer and published toward the end of the year. She also is expected to present her findings at a meeting of the American Health Economists at the University of Minnesota in June.

She said her parents and family back home are incredibly happy about her achievements. Her success has even motivated her mother to earn an advanced degree in economics as well as her sister.

And Garcia-Perez hopes to mentor others, as she has been mentored. She has brought a group of Latino Girl Scouts to St. Cloud State to show them that achieving a degree in higher education is possible no matter your situation or means.

For all of her success there is one dream Garcia-Perez hasn’t achieved: she still does her own house cleaning.

- Mike Nistler '79

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