A busy sidewalk in Jackson Heights, Queens

What New York City’s Communities Are Teaching Me About Public Health

February 19, 2024

My journey into public health began early. When I was nine, I saw the impact of chronic disease on my family and the emotional and financial burdens that came with it. These experiences instilled a purpose to confront social barriers in care and to use public health as a tool to forge sustainable solutions. Now, in my second year at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, specializing in Population and Family Health with a certificate in Chronic Disease Epidemiology, my academic and professional pursuits are anchored in a passion for health equity, policy, community empowerment, and education. As much as classroom learning has equipped me with the skills to pursue these passions, so have the opportunities to learn from New York City’s communities, which have been like a second classroom to me.

Headshot photo of a young man in a white suit

Tyler Nichols

My selection of Popfam as a department was driven by its dedication to placing health issues within societal contexts, which I believed would enhance my capacity to transform health trends into actionable insights. This philosophy has come to life in my role as a Research Assistant for the CHURCH Trial at Columbia’s Wellness Center. Here, in collaboration with Black churches in Harlem and the Bronx, we aim to elevate colorectal cancer awareness and improve access to screenings, a crucial preventive measure against a leading cause of mortality in the Black community. Our engagement transcends church boundaries, extending to community health events and recreational centers. And we do more than educate—we listen and learn from the communities we serve. Conducting in-person qualitative surveys and collecting biometric samples allows us to better tailor our interventions and future policy recommendations. This hands-on approach not only fulfills my public health aspirations but also brings unexpected, enriching encounters with community elders, whose joy and wisdom lightens the workload and adds meaning to what I do. Furthermore, this position has sharpened my research and data collection skills, bolstering my resolve to apply academic knowledge to real-world challenges.

My time at Mailman has not only deepened my understanding of public health in action but also propelled me into leadership. I found another avenue to amplify community needs through the Black & Latinx Student Caucus (BLSC). Together with my executive board, we’ve championed events that celebrate diversity, address inequities, and foster a supportive environment for Black and Latinx students. Highlights include hosting a black maternal health panel, presenting on social prescribing at the Latino Medical Student Association conference, and facilitating networking opportunities with healthcare leaders through the National Association of Health Service Executives (NAHSE) conference. The BLSC has reinforced my belief in the strength of collective voices to drive change and highlighted the importance of empathy in leadership.

Integration of Science and Practice (ISP) is a key part of the MPH first-year curriculum, and taking these classes allowed me to engage students with complex public health cases. These sessions, which I now TA for, encourage creative problem-solving in areas of population health and policy. ISP seamlessly bridged into my summer practicum at the Brooklyn Parenting Center (BPC), a maternal and child health program within Maimonides Children’s Hospital in Brooklyn. My role at BPC involved revitalizing the organization's community advisory board with Brooklyn community leaders and collaboration among a diverse set of stakeholders, including providers and clinical social workers. A proud moment at BPC was my partnership with the IRS VITA tax services to implement a program offering free monthly tax preparation to BPC patients. This initiative aimed to bridge pediatric patients and their families to essential resources. Working at BPC enriched my skillset in evaluating healthcare programs, identifying areas for innovation and improvement, and recognizing the transformative nature of community involvement.

Looking ahead, I will be soon starting an Administrative Fellowship at Mount Sinai Health System. I will be staying in New York City, which means I get to continue to learn from the city and the people who live here. Of course, I can also continue to indulge in the city’s cultural and experiential richness— from downtown hangouts with friends to Central Park spring picnics, concerts throughout the city, exploring Brooklyn's popping restaurants, and all of the touristy city events. My goal always is to give myself a balanced journey of professional growth and personal well-being.

As I stand on the cusp of becoming a public health professional, the vibrant life and lessons of New York City remind me of my growth and the path I've traversed as a first-generation student to a public health professional. This journey of learning, growth, and application in public health has been profound, and filled with challenges and celebrations. To prospective and current students, I offer this advice: lead with passion and prioritize meaningful work. It will lay the foundation for everything that follows to make a difference.

Tyler Nichols is an MPH candidate in the Department of Population and Family Health.