Shirley Loi is headed to Michigan this fall for a graduate degree in public health.


lending a HAND

Social policy and public service soon-to-be alumna Shirley Loi plans to make a career out of her passion for helping others

A simple gesture can really change someone’s life…and I just want to support people in their pursuit for a better life.

Shirley Loi, a graduating senior in social policy and public service, knows a good thing when she sees one. And once she finds something that speaks to her, she is confident in her decision to pursue it with everything she’s got.

It’s been a theme throughout her time at UCI – Loi was even dead set on attending another institution just because she didn’t want to stay so close to home for college. But when the time came to commit, she couldn’t deny her gut feeling about UCI. So she changed her mind at the last second and never looked back. She made her decision to major in SPPS much in the same way. She knew what she was looking for out of her education - the opportunity to serve the greater community - but not where to find it. She went back and forth between biology, English, psychology, and more trying to find something that fit, but one course was all it took for her to decide SPPS was exactly what she needed.

“Social science lecturer Jeanette Castellanos gave a presentation about why we were in SPPS,” she says. “She said most of us were in this class because we want to help the community, and my ears perked up because that really spoke to me. It pulled it all together. Right then I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.”

It’s no surprise that class and major appealed to her – helping people is practically in Loi’s DNA. She mostly credits her mother, who early on instilled a very deep appreciation for giving to those less fortunate. She remembers her mom toting a stack of one dollar bills in her purse at all times, ready to hand them out to homeless people she encountered throughout the day. And though their family did not grow up wealthy by any means, her mother always reminded her that there were plenty of people in their Baldwin Park neighborhood who had it much worse.

“She always said that even though we don’t have a lot of money, we should give whatever we can. Because that’s how life is, you should help people.”

As a teen, Loi joined Key Club International – a community service program for high school students – and knew she wanted to carry that spirit of service into her college career, she just wasn’t quite sure how. But when she arrived at UCI and began looking into majors in the School of Social Sciences and found social policy and public service, she was intrigued. She immediately got into the giving spirit by joining a host of on-campus organizations dedicated to giving back. She found a passion for public health along the way, and was drawn to organizations that focused on providing both physical and mental health support for her UCI peers and those in the broader community.

Loi worked with New Narratives to create dialogues about race, disability, and gender issues on campus; she joined ASUCI’s Mental Health Commission to promote the de-stigmatization of mental health; she educated her peers about how to maintain a healthy lifestyle with the Center for Student Wellness and Health Promotion; and created a student network of support for those facing personal challenges while serving as the president of No Strings Attached. She loved all these opportunities to make a difference in others lives, but it wasn’t until Castellanos’ course that she realized how she could really make a change once she left the university. “I think there’s this misconception that there’s an abundance of resources for people who are struggling,” she says. “I hear people say, ‘oh, someone will help them,’ but it’s really up to us to create those services that help others. Thanks to SPPS I have the tools to be able to do that. I have research experience, experience working with nonprofits and working directly with the community.”

The research aspect is what made Loi realize she had the real potential to help others long-term. She developed those skills (and honed in on her passion for public health) while interning at the Costa Mesa-based nonprofit Share Our Selves that provides resources – including medical – for those in need. Her research there focused on the barriers to comprehensive health for low-income minority women, and she later went on to study the effects of the “model minority myth” on Vietnamese college students’ health under Castellanos.

While she worked to strengthen her skills as an academic, Loi also continued her volunteer work in the healthcare community. She volunteered at Hoag Hospital as a health scholar; served on the board of Healing through Humanities, a club dedicated to fostering compassion in healthcare; and served as an enrollment counselor at Community Healthcare Initiative of Orange County. And though she knew what she loved doing and the difference she wanted to make, Loi still wasn’t sure exactly how to make it happen until her mentor casually mentioned graduate school. She hadn’t even considered it prior to that moment, but she happened to be in the Social Science Academic Resource Center one day and picked up a flyer on the various programs available.

After seeing that she could pursue a graduate degree in public health, she found herself in the middle of another moment of clarity. In her signature fashion, she just went for it. Despite being convinced that she wouldn’t be accepted, Loi applied to several programs and is thrilled to be heading to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor – her top choice – this fall.

“I’ll be doing health behavior and health education, a program that incorporates community-based participatory research and works directly with the community it serves,” she says. “So it ties my background with SPPS to my interest in public health, and creates this perfect program for me. I’m so excited for it.” Loi hopes to pursue a career as a community health educator or perhaps even start her own nonprofit one day. She’s particularly looking forward to a career where she gets to do what she loves and positively impact peoples’ lives every day.

“A simple gesture can really change someone’s life,” she says. “And I just want to support people in their pursuit for a better life.”