A portait of a woman wearing a graduation gown.
Lesly Alvarez graduated from VCU this month with a bachelor’s degree in health services from the College of Health Professions. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2023: Health services student Lesly Alvarez is helping those who came before her

Focusing on gerontology, the immigrant and first-generation college student aims to address disparities facing Hispanic seniors.

Share this story

Drawing inspiration from her Colombian roots, the generations that preceded her and her work in Richmond, Lesly Alvarez feels driven to make an impact where health, age and diversity intersect.

Alvarez graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University this month with a bachelor’s degree in health services from the College of Health Professions and an interest in gerontology that has roots in her childhood.                                                                         

“I think it comes from my connection with the seniors and especially my grandparents. Since I was little, I loved seniors because of their knowledge – they’re really respectful,” she said. “When I saw the internship options that we had, I was like, hands down, I wanted to do gerontology.”

When she was 16, Alvarez and her single mother emigrated from Colombia amid the crime and conflict in that country. Since her teen years, Alvarez has worked in numerous food service jobs, and more recently as an immigration legal assistant, in sales at a beauty shop, at a health care company and as a staffing coordinator for a senior living residence, where she saw the dire need for better pay and staffing. And her mother’s example has been influential, too: She was a small-business owner in Colombia and here in Richmond is active in her church on the South Side and in the greater Spanish-speaking community, often helping newcomers and sharing guidance on where to find free clinics or job opportunities.

Alvarez was a student at Brightpoint Community College when she discovered VCU’s health services program. Since transferring a year ago, her studies and other activities came into focus – forged in part by the pandemic. With her mother, she delivered meals through the New Virginia Majority advocacy organization to undocumented and homebound Spanish speakers who lacked insurance.

“A lot of them couldn’t go work, and they didn’t have money to pay for anything. So a lot of them didn’t have anything to eat or for housing,” Alvarez said. “It shapes a lot into my thinking about health care.”

At VCU, her favorite classes have included a service-learning course as well as a health care ethics class with assistant professor Kelsey B. White, Ph.D., in which students reflected on their career path and the moral principles it demands.

“Professor White has a lot of empathy, and she made us have a lot of curiosity,” Alvarez said.

Through discussions on health disparities and a class on research with assistant professor Kelli Williams Gary, Ph.D., Alvarez developed a passion for investigations. She also interned with Annie Rhodes, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Gerontology and with the Virginia Center on Aging who leads the Virginia Memory Project, a brain health registry. Alvarez supported public health dementia surveillance, assessing older adults to learn more about their satisfaction with health care providers in Virginia. She also helped raise awareness of dementia.

“We are immensely proud of her at the Center on Aging,” Rhodes said by email. “Lesly is a committed advocate for evidence-based, inclusive community programming and supports making Richmond a great place to grow old, and we can’t wait to see what is next for her!” 

Alvarez’s research focused on Richmond’s elderly Hispanic population, many of whom live south of the James River. She plans to present data from her caregiving survey at a conference next year.

“We found out that a lot of Hispanics, they get health care, but because of income and lack of insurance, they get it from free clinics here in Richmond, which is great,” Alvarez said. “But a lot of them don’t get access and the same treatment [as people with insurance].”

Alvarez served as vice president of her degree program’s student advisory board, with an eye toward raising engagement in the health services field. After graduation, she plans to continue her education – possibly as a physician’s assistant or by pursuing a master’s degree in gerontology, hoping to further raise awareness about health disparities.

“As an immigrant and a first-generation college student, I know firsthand the challenges that individuals from underrepresented backgrounds face when pursuing higher education,” Alvarez wrote in an essay about her career aspirations. “I believe that a diverse health care workforce is essential to addressing health care disparities and providing quality care to all patients.”