A Call to Pay It Forward and Build Community
“Be the change you want to see in the world” is a mantra that I have been living with since I started my graduate program at Columbia Public Health. As my time as an MPH student concludes, I cannot help but reflect on my time in New York and share a few words to my colleagues. In writing this, I was often conflicted on what themes or messages I want to convey that will inspire change. However, two themes that stood out to me were the power of paying it forward and the importance of building community.
I never thought I would be the first in my family to graduate from an Ivy League institution. I am a first-generation, undocumented student and the oldest son of two Mexican immigrant parents. My parents came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, in hopes of giving my two younger siblings and myself a chance at a better life and the opportunities to achieve the dreams they were never able to pursue. My father wanted to become an engineer while my mother dreamt of her children pursuing higher education. My presence as a student at Columbia is my resistance and a symbol of my parents’ dreams. It is also the result of the support from my mentors, mi familia, friends, and allies that have helped in the trajectory of my education.
I grew up in California’s Coachella Valley where a significant percentage of the population are low-income and undocumented migrant families. Due to having an undocumented status, many residents in my hometown do not have access to basic healthcare. Systemic barriers such as this prevent many people from being able to properly treat their medical conditions. My passion for public health originates from these roots, the experiences I had growing up in my hometown, and realizing that everyone should have the chance to lead a healthy life regardless of their socio-economic or immigrant status. I came to Columbia Mailman to gain the public health expertise necessary to make systemic changes in our health system and improve health outcomes for all populations. As a graduate and a public health practitioner, I hope to attend medical school, become a practicing physician, and apply my skills and knowledge to immigrant communities like the one I grew up in. This is how I envision to reinvest in marginalized populations.
I believe that Columbia Mailman students have a duty to pay it forward. We must not forget that graduating is truly a privilege, not only because we’ve had the opportunity to gain an education here, but because we’ve dedicated the past few years working towards developing the knowledge, skills, and expertise needed to make a change in our communities. All those hours and late nights spent at the Knowledge Center, writing our theses, finishing our practicums, and preparing for our poster presentations have given us the skills to make a difference. Here, we have developed our public health expertise and we’ve also planted the seeds for innovative public health practice.
Most of us have already taken great steps in paying it forward during our time at Mailman. During Admitted Students Day, we showcased our passion for public health and we inspired the next generation of Mailman students to carry the torch in public health knowledge. In completing our graduate studies at Columbia, we’re adding to the legacy of this institution. However, it is important to realize that legacies are only valuable in the context of paying it forward. Now it is our responsibility to make use of the knowledge we have gained during our time at Mailman and bring these skills to those who need them the most.
As a teaching assistant for the Leadership Development course, one lecture that spoke to me about building community was one dedicated to Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an esteemed Mailman Epidemiology professor and global director of ICAP. During her tenure at Harlem Hospital Center, Dr. El-Sadr quickly learned that many of the HIV/AIDS patients she saw had a variety of needs that often had conflicting priorities. She was among the first to incorporate treatment and research at Harlem Hospital while also pushing for community partnership in clinical trials and integrating care for HIV and tuberculosis. Today, the Harlem unit serves as a model for HIV and tuberculosis trials with full community participation. From this example, I challenge all of us to build community among our peers and also with the individuals that will benefit most from our public health expertise.
Now is the time to build community on a larger scale and focus on those that need our help. As we graduate and leave the Mailman community as we’ve known it, New York City, the United States, and the world will become our public health laboratory. We’ll work to solve complex public health issues affecting us today, including climate change, chronic disease, maternal mortality, racial health disparities, rising healthcare costs, and gun violence just to name a few. As working professionals or scholars, we will use what we’ve learned to build strong and healthy communities. All of us today will be occupying many of the roles dedicated to addressing these issues and becoming the heroes of tomorrow. It is of utmost importance that we dedicate ourselves to cultural humility and community engagement as we work towards making the world a better place.