​Gabriel Guillén can't help but notice the barriers standing in the way of a healthier community—especially his own, the city of Santa Paula, in Ventura County, California.

Guillén sees too many liquor stores and too few grocery stores. Not enough parks or bike paths. Too many desolate spaces littered with glass and debris. The rare health clinic set amid scores of fast food restaurants.

"To me, this is inequality," says the 41-year-old registered nurse.

Guillén always recognized the struggles within his community, but it was attending California State University, Channel Islands that opened his eyes to the root causes—and possible solutions.

Santa Paula has one of the largest migrant worker populations in the state; Guillén, his siblings and parents were once among them. Because the workers are often undocumented and speak little or no English, access to basic healthcare can be a challenge.

"They're in a cycle where they have to keep working so hard just to make ends meet," says Guillén, who credits his CSU education with preparing him to think big when it comes to community health.

"As a nurse, I have a duty to advocate for social justice."

 

A Seed Late to Bloom

A bright kid who graduated high school at just 16, Guillén had earned an associate degree in administrative justice by 18. He tried to get into law enforcement but was turned away because of his heavy accent.

After starting a family and spending nearly a decade working at the local corrugated packaging plant, Guillén and his wife Rosario understood that things would never really improve for them if he stayed at the plant.

"I knew we had to do something to plan for the future," remembers the father of four teenagers.

Guillén thought back to his high school days: He'd wanted to be a doctor; a counselor had advised him to become a truck driver. If medical school was now a bridge too far with a wife and young children, nursing was the next best thing.

Guillén graduated from the nursing program at Moorpark Community College in 2009 with his R.N. degree and a job in a hospital soon followed. But by then he'd already seen how education could provide access to new opportunities. He wanted to stay in school.

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program at CSU Channel Islands made the most sense. The campus had just streamlined its RN-to-BSN process, making it an ideal fit for Guillén.

CSU Channel Islands' location, affordability, and more flexible schedule amounted to a complete package for the family.

Counselors at Channel Islands also met with Guillén to find scholarship opportunities; he eventually earned three, along with a California Health Professions grant.

Combined, the aid eased the family's financial burden and gave Guillén the access he needed to focus on his path.

 

Transforming Into a Health Leader

Community college may have prepared Guillén to be a nurse, but the courses at CSU Channel Islands ignited a passion.

He learned how communities could be transformed through preventative measures like vaccinating children, teaching good nutrition and smoking cessation, and holding regular screenings for chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

"I didn't know what community health was until I came to Channel Islands," admits Guillén. "It empowered me to advocate for social justice and health equality within our community."

Seeing the inequality in his own backyard, it wasn't long before he began to think incessantly about ways to break the cycle.  

"We need to start doing something to prevent people from coming into the hospital over and over and over again," he says. "Sometimes you feel like it's a revolving door."

Meanwhile, he was excelling on campus and graduated magna cum laude with his BSN in 2011. While continuing to work full-time, Guillén then earned a master's degree in business and economics from CSU Channel Islands in 2016.

He was also recognized as a William Randolph Hearst Scholar, part of the Trustee Scholar Awards, the most prestigious honor awarded to students across the California State University system.

 

Impacting a Community, One Shot at a Time

In 2013, two Ventura County migrant workers died from complications from the flu.

The deaths hit Guillén hard. His own parents had worked the fields to support the family; as a boy, Guillén himself had harvested lemons alongside his siblings. He knew that while the flu is largely preventable when people are vaccinated annually, it can be difficult to reach migrant worker communities with immunization resources.

So Guillén came to George West, vice president of mission integration for St. John's Hospitals, in Camarillo, with an idea: What if they expanded their impact by using the hospital's RV to serve those who most needed to be immunized against the flu?

West told Guillén to go for it. He began to deliver services to low-income, largely Hispanic neighborhoods all over Ventura County—free of charge. Some were held in strawberry fields. That first year, the Mobile Wellness Vehicle (MWV) delivered the flu vaccine to 329 people, followed by 1,400 the next year. In 2015, the number jumped to nearly 3,000.

"Since then, it has traveled the length and breadth of the county to serve all we could reach," says West. "Each person who meets with Gabriel, whether in a clinical setting, community setting, or when he is helping student nurses complete their education, feels how he is fully attentive to him or her."

When Guillén isn't working at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard or St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo, he brings along CSU Channel Islands nursing students in the MWV, demonstrating how to immunize patients. And he helps underserved families find local healthcare resources—from mammograms to mental health services—and teaches them how to navigate the sometimes frustrating path to affordable insurance.

Ever humble, Guillén simply hopes his work makes a direct impact on the health of those around him.

"Perhaps we were able to save one or two people from having real complications from the flu," he says. "And to me, that's priceless."