Class of 2023 Spotlight: Carmen Cucalon MS’23

Exploring the connection between healthy food and healthy minds

Carmen Cucalon

Carmen Cucalon

By Alicia Banks

Published April 25, 2023, last updated on May 1, 2023 under Student Stories

Before completing the Duke Master of Science in Global Health program, Carmen Cucalon worked as a registered dietitian. Her thesis research looked at the association between low access to healthy food and mental health outcomes among adults in Miami, Florida.

My interest in global health comes from … I was in a young adult group in Miami, and we went with Missionaries of Charity to volunteer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At the time, I was a registered dietitian in Florida. I was there to help feed children at the malnutrition clinic, care for and play with them and to be with those in hospice care. After that, I wanted to learn more about the intersection of global health and nutrition while working in the areas of food insecurity and global hunger. That’s what steered me to Duke and my thesis work.

My thesis work taught me … to be comfortable with uncertainty and to know those challenges are opportunities for growth. It helped me build confidence by reaching out to others who gave me amazing mentorship through moments of struggle and stress. It also taught me “Local is Global;” sometimes we forget there are pockets of need in the U.S., in our own backyard.

Do not be afraid when things don’t go the way you expect it. It is an opportunity for greater growth.

Carmen Cucalon — Class of 2023 Master of Science in Global Health Graduate

If you had told me I’d be at Duke … I wouldn’t have believed it after my surgery. In 2015, I was diagnosed with Chiari malformation (a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal) after having vision and imbalance problems that got worse after a summer abroad trip to Ireland when I was a junior at Purdue University. When I received that call, I was scared and gave the phone to my mom. My neurosurgeon told me without surgery, I’d risked being paralyzed. I had the surgery and developed hydrocephalus (buildup of fluid in the cavities deep within the brain). I had to have a second surgery.
        During the last five years, I wore a necklace with the crucifix and Our Lady of Sorrows, a devotion about the seven sorrows the Virgin Mary experienced in her life; I’m Roman Catholic. For me, it brings peace in times of stress and uncertainty. It’s a reminder of my faith, which has played a big role in my life.

Something I’ve done at Duke I couldn’t do anywhere else … When my mom dropped me off at school, she said, “It’s time to fly.” That stayed with me and allowed me to seek opportunities to expand such as being the co-founder of the Duke Nutrition Society and being the president of it this year. I never thought I’d do that, grow my leadership skills. I’m also learning Haitian Creole through the FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) Fellowships Program. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since my volunteer work in Haiti.

What I’ll miss about Duke … the community with so much talent, diversity and eagerness to bring about and make change. It brings me hope and joy to see so much potential for a great future. I’ll miss the Duke Catholic Center because they’ve become my second family here.

My advice for global health students … Do not be afraid when things don’t go the way you expect it. It is an opportunity for greater growth. Be patient and comfortable with the uncertainty because it means there’s something else to be explored. My thesis changed around 10 times, but at the end of the day, it was a new opportunity for growth and to learn.