Sommarani (Mayra) Chan’s focus in nutrition stems from two personal experiences: when she was seven, her mom had a stroke at age 39; when she left the army in 2014, her transition to civilian life was aided by exercising and eating healthy.
After serving eight years and being deployed to Afghanistan, Chan had difficulty coping with her experiences and knew she needed a change. Being healthy was a way for her to control her life and influenced her to study nutrition at Cal Poly Pomona.
“I didn’t want to suffer the same health issues my mom had growing up,” said Chan, a master’s student in agriculture with an emphasis in nutrition and food science. “Once I got to Cal Poly Pomona, being around other students who were working academically at a high level encouraged me to keep going in nutrition.”
Chan (’17, food and nutrition) transferred to Cal Poly Pomona from Irvine Valley College in 2015. She worked at the Veterans Resource Center as a peer advisor, helping student veterans and veteran dependents navigate college life, find resources and take advantage of opportunities.
As an undergraduate student, Chan discussed issues in the veteran community linked to nutrition with the center’s coordinator, Elke Azpeitia.
“Discovery is part of the learning process,” Azpeitia said. “Mayra was open-minded and welcomed the opportunity to have a discussion on what motivated her when it came to learning and serving others.”
They discovered that nearly 80 percent of veterans using the VA healthcare system are overweight, but there was a lack of data on student veterans. Chan decided to focus her research on the health of student veterans during her undergraduate and graduate studies. She continues to collaborate with the VRC to provide student veterans with direct access to nutritional counseling and create ways to improve their health.
“I wouldn’t have ended up in graduate school or get to where I am without working with the VRC team,” Chan said. “They really care about their veterans and are essentially family away from home.”
Chan also credits the VRC with helping her earn a job in a government agency. She took a federal resume workshop hosted by the VRC in 2016. She used her resume and tips from the workshop to secure an internship with the United States Department of Agriculture and her current job as a consumer safety officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she helps certify seafood products for international exporting and does health inspections to ensure the seafood is safe for the public to consume.
In the future, she wants to work more closely with veterans and dependents of veterans.
“The VRC helped lay the groundwork for my career, showed me where I’m heading and helped me get a foot in the door for federal jobs,” Chan said. “Right now, I’m learning a lot about interstate commerce and public health. It’s a stepping stone to other federal jobs that could be related to nutrition.”
Chan wanted to be in preventative health at a young age after helping her mom manage her health following her stroke, but she also wanted to explore the world and face her fears. To combine her goals, she enlisted in the army in 2006 and worked as a pharmacy technician. She also wanted to make her parents proud.
In the late 1970s, both her parents survived the Khmer Rouge, a regime in Cambodia that killed 2 million of its own people. In 1985, her parents found refuge in the United States and raised their family in northern California. Chan wanted to honor her parents’ struggles and sacrifice by serving in the United States Army and obtaining a higher education.
“I was able to be successful professionally and academically in the United States for myself and also for my family,” Chan said. “I hope that my achievements will make my parents proud.”