Profiles in Persistence: Raul Gierbolini ’21

He hasn’t gotten his bachelor’s degree yet, but Raul Gierbolini ’21 is already on his way to his master’s.

When Gierbolini, 21, graduates from the University of Southern Maine on May 8 with a Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training, he’ll also be six classes into a USM graduate degree in Public Health. It’s an unusual situation, taking graduate classes before finishing undergrad. But for Gierbolini, who spent the past year thinking about the plight of public health, it’s the perfect path.

“We started seeing all these different disparities that are so apparent and open now because of the pandemic,” he said. “You see things in the media. You see things in your personal lives. You see things through friends and family.”

His ultimate goal: Help people.

“I see all the disparities in such a big way. In just being Puerto Rican I see the disparities,” he said.

Gierbolini, a student-athlete from the Caribbean island and U.S. territory, initially chose USM because he liked its wrestling coaches and he liked the area. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to major in.

He knew he ultimately wanted to work in the healthcare field as a physical therapist, but he would need an undergraduate degree first. He found that Athletic Training would get him there while also indulging his love of sports.

He enrolled, dividing his time between wrestling and academics. At USM, he has been an NCAA All-Region wrestler, a New England Wrestling Association All-Conference Honorable Mention, and a William B. Wise Scholar-Athlete. He also devoted himself to causes that felt personal: starting the Latin American Student Alliance at USM and running a successful fundraising campaign to help the victims of Hurricane Maria, the deadly Category 5 storm that devastated Puerto Rico and the region in 2017.

Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, public health was at the forefront of everything. Gierbolini looked at the health care disparities he saw around him. Medical care was so much easier for some people to get and so much harder for others.

“Especially being a Puerto Rican who has lived on the island his entire life, I see the differences in the treatment between us and U.S citizens who live in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s twice as hard on the island.”

He approached USM about the possibility of completing a master’s degree in public health in one year. Long term, he was still interested in physical therapy, but public health was calling to him now. The university agreed, and Gierbolini began taking graduate classes alongside his last year of undergraduate classes.

Gierbolini still sees physical therapy as a goal, but the more he learns about public health, the more he realizes the choices available to him. There are a lot of ways to help improve the health of people and well-being of communities; he’s keeping his options open.

One thing he’s definite about: Bringing that help back to Puerto Rico.

 “I want to work here for a while,” he said. “Then I want to go back home.”