‘We choose who we are’: Helen Tejada chose to champion health access

As a first-generation college student, the tight-knit community Tejada found in her Yale residential college was transformative.
Helen Tejada

Helen Tejada (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Helen Tejada knows most students are loyal to their residential colleges. But to her it’s not a question of loyalty, it’s just a fact: Grace Hopper College is the best.

As a first-generation college student, the tight-knit community she found in the college was transformative. “Sometimes, new students feel lost. And then there’s Hopper.” From the family-style Sunday night dinners to the student advocacy that led to Hopper’s name change in 2017, the blend of tradition and innovation set the tone for Tejada’s time at Yale.

What we have established is a community of respect and kindness,” she said. “That is why we’re the best college: we choose every day who we are. We aren’t told who we are.”

Helen Tejada with friends in Hopper College sweaters
Helen Tejada with classmates in their Hopper College sweaters.

Tejada knew she wanted to study biology and health care, growing up in Sleepy Hollow, New York, alongside her brother, who has the genetic disorder Prader-Willi syndrome. Even as a kid she’d often serve as a translator during hospital visits with her parents, who are from the Dominican Republic. She was still in high school when, after a research internship at Regeneron, a biotechnology company based in nearby Tarrytown, she fell in love with science through an advocacy lens and liked that Yale wouldn't make her choose between the two paths.

When she arrived at Yale, her first-year counselor (FroCo) at Hopper College helped her navigate early impostor syndrome, telling her, “Someone doesn’t tell you belong here. You have to decide for yourself that this is your place.”

Helen Tejada holding up a Dominican Republic flag with friends at La Casa cultural center
Helen Tejada and fellow students hold up a Dominican Republic flag at La Casa, the Latina cultural center at Yale.

And I certainly feel now it is,” Tejada said recently, just weeks from earning her Yale degree.

She paid that mentorship forward by serving as a FroCo herself, showing new students how to balance academics, extracurriculars, and pleasure. In addition to her studies, she’s made time for activities like football games, the Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween Show, skiing and sailing trips, intramural sports, and some more momentous opportunities, like helping students schedule their COVID vaccines as part of the Public Health Education for Peers program. “I was waking up at 5 a.m. to Zoom with people to help them get their vaccination appointments,” she said. “You could see the hope in people’s eyes that we were coming out of this and that everything was going to come back to normal soon.”

Helen Tejada poses with a friend dressed as a seahorse at a Hopper College party
Helen Tejada and a friend during a Hopper College party.

Throughout Tejada’s time at Yale, Hopper has always been her home base. As a member of the Hopper Student Council, she served as its first director of communications and, later, vice president, showing students that it’s possible to walk the line between old traditions and the “silly, goofy” side of Yale, hosting formals and DJing social events. Her secret to a good party is lots of “good throwbacks to the early 2010s: Jonas Brothers, old-school Drake.”

She wants all Yale students to remember to have unscheduled fun, whether losing time chatting during long lunches in the dining hall, grabbing a treat from the Buttery, or taking evening runs through East Rock Park to enjoy a view of New Haven at sunset.

This summer, Tejada will be a part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s CDC John R. Lewis Undergraduate Public Health Scholars program — a Columbia University-based program that provides hands-on training, mentorship, and professional development — before taking a fellowship to finish her thesis investigating insulin signaling. These experiences will help move her toward her career goals of making health care and medical research accessible to everyone, so that people like her parents don’t have to rely on their children to translate for them in hospitals.

As she’s prepared to move on from her time at Hopper, Tejada has shed a few tears. But she says, “I am coming out of this place more sure of myself in my abilities and also in my values. I know that I value kindness, respect, and accessibility.”

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