Seven people pose in front of a wall of of advocacy posters

Columbia Mailman Students Advocate for Public Health in Albany

February 5, 2024

Each January, more than 200 elected members of the New York State Senate and State Assembly convene in Albany for a new legislative session to shape state policy on issues that matter to their constituents. On January 30, for the first time, they were joined by a group of 20 students from Columbia Mailman School and Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The first-ever Columbia University Irving Medical Center Albany Day exposed students to the legislative process and opened the door to public health advocacy with elected officials. The event, which largely follows the format of a similar annual student trip to Washington, D.C., was organized by Heather Krasna, Associate Dean of Career Services at Columbia Mailman; Ross Frommer, Vice President and Associate Dean of Government and Community Affairs, Columbia Irving Medical Center; and Kristina Montville, Associate Director, Career Advising and Residency Services at Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Throughout the day, students got to meet with numerous legislators and leaders, including Senator Robert Jackson, Senator Gustavo Rivera, Assembly Member Manny De Los Santos, Assembly Member Al Taylor, New York State Commissioner of Health James McDonald, New York State Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Eugene Heslin, among others. Additionally, some students arranged meetings with the elected officials from their districts. To commemorate their visit, Assembly Member Amy Paulin announced the student group on the floor of the New York State Assembly (watch a video below). Students then watched as Frommer testified in support NYFIRST, an economic development initiative that provides funds to medical schools to recruit and retain top scientific talent. 

For many students, Albany Day gave them a way to bridge their interest in public health and policymaking through advocacy. All participants completed an application process and took part in training sessions on how to conduct an advocacy meeting. Students organized themselves into small teams to research current policy issues under consideration in the state legislature. Issues included sexual and reproductive health, prenatal care, heart health, and more.

“To make a difference requires action, and I was able to observe so many incredible Mailman and VP&S students acting for what they believe in,” said Melanie Jenkins, an MPH student in Population and Family Health. “Just a few moments with a state legislator proved to be valuable time to spark a meaningful conversation about health policy. These moments are the ones that will make the difference in creating equitable communities with healthy and happy populations,” she continued.  

Moza Mariam Mendes, an MPH student in the Health Policy and Management department, appreciated the opportunity to put what she has learned in the classroom into action in a real-world setting. “It allowed me to apply my policy studies into practice and forge links with my peers as I learned from their experiences. The entire day was nothing short of an inspiration and realization of how much I would love to work in the advocacy space to establish safe places and implement policies that allow marginalized communities to attain the highest standards of healthcare,” she said.

Other students saw the chance to meet with lawmakers as an essential step in public health advocacy. Said Chahat Hamirani, an MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences: “One of my intentions was to speak up for what I believe is fundamental to human rights. This experience took away the intimidation of speaking up and crystallized my commitment to advocacy. Through individual and collective action, an equitable and compassionate future is possible.

Students Advocate for Public Health in Albany