Gabriel Gaarden wore many hats during his time at the University of New Mexico. Graduating this spring with a masters in public health is just one of his many achievements.
Gaarden was a notable student for both his work as a research assistant and as the president of the Public Health Student Association (PHSA), where he grew as a leader and acted as a voice for the student population in combating differential tuition.
At his core, Gaarden said his true passion is for nutrition. After becoming a registered dietitian in 2018, Garden started working for a program called Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition, which provides nutrition education to low-income populations throughout New Mexico, at New Mexico State University.
“You can educate people all you want. I know that I need to eat more fruits and vegetables, but if I don’t have access to them or I can’t afford them, it won’t make a difference,” he said.
Gaarden said he chose public health as his masters degree because it takes a primary prevention approach to health, which is something he is passionate about and wants to apply to the nutrition side of health.
“Instead of people getting sick and then I’m counseling a diabetic or someone with heart disease on how they can improve their health, I want to just go upstream where I can educate them before they get sick about how to adopt healthy lifestyle practices and healthy nutrition,” Gaarden said.
He said he also hopes to change the nutrition environment for New Mexicans so they always have access to healthy and affordable food options.
“What I would really love to do in my career is not only educate people about nutrition — which I love to do — but I know the best way for me to have the broadest impact possible is to change the food environment,” Gaarden said. “That means eliminating food deserts and making sure people don’t have to drive an hour or two hours to get to a good grocery store where they can get access to health foods.”
At UNM, Gaarden will be remembered as a leader of the PHSA, where he acted as a voice for students in speaking up against differential tuition.
Earlier this semester, the Daily Lobo reported that Gaarden and his colleague, Alden Reviere, spoke against the proposed differential tuition increase during two Board of Regents committee meetings.
During public comment in the first meeting, the two masters of public health graduate students quashed differential tuition for their program. Their dean, Dr. Tracie Collins, withdrew the proposal after Gaarden and Reviere's staunch opposition.
Gaarden said the students' primary concern was why the college was — as their very first means of trying to increase funding for the college — going to put a tuition increase on the backs of the students who are among the most vulnerable populations.
Gaarden said the proposal was for a $100 per credit hour increase for the undergraduate program — and $150 increase for the masters program — on top of the original tuition and fees students had to pay.
“Many of our students are low income, so to then ask students to pay an additional $1,350 per semester is a huge ask for students,” Gaarden said.
Audrey Cooper, Gaarden’s friend and vice president of the PHSA, said she will remember Gaarden as the kind of person who wants to do a good job and do right by everything that he does.
“The fact that we had to mount a contentious position that forced him to take the side of the students — when he’s a very respected student among the faculty — I think was a big point of personal growth for him, because he had to be very strong in his position and very confident and clear, and I feel like he rose to the occasion for that,” Cooper said.
Although the graduate students of the College of Population Health defeated the implementation of differential tuition, the undergraduate students were not able to come together and voice their concerns in time.
Cooper said it was because of Gaarden’s leadership that they were able to defeat differential tuition.
“With Gabriel’s leadership we were able to very quickly put together a response and an effective plan that prompted the Dean to rescind her proposal for this year,” she said.
In addition to serving as the PHSA’s president, Gaarden worked closely with Dr. Fransico Soto Mas on a number of evaluation and research-based projects.
Among those projects was an evaluation of the Bernalillo County Grow the Growers Farmer Training Program and the development of a survey that will be distributed to approximately 500 certified organic farmers in the South Central Region of the U.S.
Gaarden said the survey aims to assess the unique psychological, social, and occupational factors that may contribute to or challenge the safety, health and well-being of certified organic producers.
Dr. Soto Mas said Gaarden was chosen as a research assistant for his many qualities including his maturity, responsibility and dedication to his work.
“I strongly believe he will make a significant contribution to the public health field, and would like to see him continue his leadership and advocacy activities, particularly at the community and policy levels,” Soto Mas said.
Amanda Britt is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AmandaBritt__