NUNM grad Yolanda Fernández advocates for social justice, equitable health access

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Justice student commencement speaker draws on growing up in Puerto Rico, early experiences with medicine.

Yolanda Fernández

With the Commencement 2024 approaching on June 29, the National University of Natural Medicine is proud to highlight our speakers for the ceremony.

Yolanda Fernández, a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine student graduating from the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) this year, has always had a strong personal and family connection to holistic healthcare. 

Before knowing natural medicine could be a career, she said she was aware of gaps in the modern healthcare system, as well as alternative treatments available for common illnesses. 

Fernández, who was selected as the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Justice (DEIBJ) Student Speaker at NUNM’s commencement ceremony on June 29, has attributed much of what she knows to her time spent growing up in Puerto Rico.  

On the island, it was easy to see how many systems were not designed with the community in mind.  

“I’m very politically driven to the injustices that go on in Puerto Rico, being a colony of the US, and how we are not leveled equally as citizens,” Fernandez said. “I’ve always had an affinity towards social justice, social matters and health access for everyone.” 

Luckily, both her parents were medical doctors, so she was exposed to other solutions and possibilities around health and wellness from an early age. It was not uncommon for family dinner conversations to revolve around the procedure of a gallbladder removal or the debilitating effects of a patient’s cancer diagnosis.  

Despite her parents’ clinical training in advanced medical settings, her family’s approach to wellbeing made it difficult to ignore many of the ties medicine had to the natural world. 

For example, Fernández said when she had a stomachache, her grandmother would go to the backyard and trim leaves from a soursop tree to make tea. Her parents also continued to supplement their medical understanding in other areas, like Ayurvedic medicine, over the years to deepen their knowledge of plants and herbal remedies. 

It was these early experiences that drew Fernández to study medicine. After earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Puerto Rico, she worked as a veterinary technician assistant. Then, she became pregnant with her first child, which she had been told might not be possible. 

Consulting with her doctor on which measures would help ensure a successful pregnancy, he instructed her to do “nothing” because her body would “take care of it.” That answer just didn’t suit her. 

She had watched her parents work with patients to improve their quality of life and this had taught her there were always pieces that fit together early on to result in better outcomes down the road. 

“Everything that you put into your life—mind, body, emotional, the people who are around you—contributes to your being and to your essence,” Fernández said.  

From there, she began searching for ways to take control of her own health. She started working with a midwife and learned about lactation and plant-based nutrition.

She even received training in breastfeeding medicine and childbirth education, passionate about bringing this knowledge to others.  

During this time, a mentor opened her eyes to the idea of becoming a naturopathic doctor. This was when Fernández decided to reconsider her career path.  

“Not everybody has this drive to do this research and take matters into their own hands,” Fernández said. “Especially a lot of patients who don’t have that health literacy that I had.” 

Researching degree programs online led to her to NUNM and the Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine program in 2019.  

Since then, her time as a student has been spent advocating for greater awareness and collaboration within the medical field so clinicians can deliver better care to patients. In recent years, she was nominated for and assumed the role of president of the Student Government Association, and honored for her leadership at NUNM’s Make a Difference Masquerade Ball.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, she said there was a disconnect developing between departments and a desire from students to engage with work being done across all corners of the institution.  

This was yet another way she could promote a broader view of natural medicine and prepare fellow graduates for their future as doctors. 

Reflecting on everything she’s learned over the years at NUNM, and her reasons for choosing this field, Fernández said she thinks of a quote from Puerto Rican professional baseball player Roberto Clemente: “Anytime you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, you are wasting your time on Earth.” 

Clemente, who spent his off-season doing charity work, died in a plane in 1972 while delivering relief aid to Nicaragua after an earthquake. Fernández said the quote has always inspired her to help others throughout her career. 

After graduation, her hope is to continue raising important issues in healthcare, especially as they relate to fertility and pediatrics, and return to Puerto Rico to share what she’s learned during her time at NUNM.  

She also said she plans to run workshops to teach people how to cultivate backyard plants, and dreams of building a nonprofit where she can give back to her home community. 

It’s par for the course, she said, as healthcare should be viewed as an essential “right” instead of a “luxury.” 

“If we are not in it to nurture others,” she said, “and to provide a service—a genuine heartfelt service—then you should not be in healthcare.” 

by Ashley Villarreal, Marketing Content Specialist