- Author: Michael Hsu
Community nutrition and health advisor builds bridges across cultures in Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Madera counties
At a young age, Irene Padasas – UC Cooperative Extension community nutrition and health advisor for Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Madera counties – saw first-hand how environmental health conditions can impact a family's choices.
When she was in fourth grade, her parents moved their family from bustling Manila, capital of the Philippines, to a small town on a distant island. Her younger brother, who had been hospitalized at age 3 for a year due to complications from meningitis, had to re-learn how to walk and talk.
Padasas' mother hoped that leaving the more polluted urban environment would benefit his long road of rehabilitation. “The decision was made to ensure a better quality of life for my brother,” Padasas said. “So my parents decided to just move to the countryside.”
The family settled in a beach town in largely rural Aklan province, near the center of the Philippine archipelago.
“There are advantages living in a place like that, where you're close to nature; there's not much traffic; the community is very tight,” Padasas said. “You feel like you're part of this small community where everybody is looking after each other.”
Contributing to that sense of community – and cultivating close relationships to ensure the health and well-being of all – are just some of the reasons why Padasas chose her line of work in Cooperative Extension.
Padasas oversees the delivery of two federal nutrition programs in her region – CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. She develops, provides and evaluates Extension programs in partnership with the diverse populations of the Central Valley, including a variety of Latino, Mexican Indigenous and Asian communities.
Despite differences in culture and background, Padasas works to find common ground and build bridges – often through a joke and a laugh.
“Humor is such a big part of Filipino culture; with the challenges that I encountered in life, humor was so important in getting through and bouncing back,” she said. “That part of my culture is an important aspect of me to build relationships and genuine connections and introduce the work that we do; they don't see us as a ‘researcher from University of California,' they see us just like them, just like anybody else in the community.”
Growing up near both the beach and farmland in Aklan, Padasas feels an affinity for the agricultural landscapes and lifestyles in the San Joaquin Valley. She remembers feeding her family's chickens and pigs and playing among the neighbors' cows and water buffalo.
“I feel like whenever I drive to different places here in the Central Valley, it reminds me a lot of my childhood back in the day,” she said.
Nevertheless, Padasas misses the food in the Philippines – especially the seafood that she grew up eating, succulent prawns and enormous fish found nowhere in California.
“We would wait by the shore for whatever the fishermen would sell – it's really fresh fish, literally fresh from the boat,” she recalled.
Mealtimes were central in the childhood of Padasas and her siblings, who both live in the Philippines and help care for their parents; her brother is an engineer and her older sister is a teacher. Food was and remains a focal point for sharing and connecting, within their household and across the culture.
“When I was growing up, my parents made sure we were spending time as a family, eating together during dinner and sharing special meals on weekends,” Padasas said.
Chance encounter leads to an Extension career
Padasas returned to the Manila metro area for college, at the University of the Philippines Dilliman, where she earned a bachelor's degree in special education. After working as a special ed teacher for about seven years, she went to graduate school at Ateneo de Manila University for her master's in developmental psychology.
Originally intending to pursue a career as a child psychologist, Padasas said her path changed when she met Maria de Guzman, a University of Nebraska professor and Ateneo de Manila alumna, who returned to her alma mater to present her research on “yayas” – live-in caregivers for children in the Philippines.
Intrigued by that study, Padasas leaped at the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. with de Guzman at Nebraska, where she would write her doctoral dissertation on social capital – such as personal relationships and networks – as predictors of college success for underrepresented minority students.
It was also de Guzman, herself an Extension specialist, who guided Padasas on that career track.
“I knew at that time I wanted to work in Extension, but it was a vague concept to me because in the Philippines we don't have Extension as part of the university,” Padasas explained. “Dr. de Guzman was the one who really introduced me to Extension.”
During graduate school in Nebraska, Padasas gained valuable experience working with a diverse range of ethnic minorities and refugees, including Latinos, Filipinos, Yazidis and Congolese. She especially enjoyed working with children and teens – a favorite aspect of her work that continues to this day. Padasas said that, when given the opportunity to discuss her academic background, she mentions her educational experience to young people.
“I always make sure to talk about my work as a research scientist – to encourage these kids, especially those from underrepresented minority groups, to see themselves in my shoes, to show them that: ‘You could also become like me, a person of color, a researcher, and that's not an impossible path for you,'” Padasas said.
That academic track – and her entire life's journey – have prepared Padasas well for her current role, within an organization that spans the state of California and all its diverse communities.
“I think that's the beauty of the work that we do at UC ANR,” she said. “We are provided with so many opportunities to connect and to create impact for so many people across different populations.”/h3>/h3>