Equal Health Under the Law
Sitting down to what would be the first of six meetings on Capitol Hill as part of Columbia Mailman’s DC Career Week, the legislative director for Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, looked across the table and got straight to point, “So you practiced law for some time. Why did you decide to get a public health degree?”
My mind flashed to three moments: first, when I decided to attend Mailman; second, the fall semester known as “The Core”; and third, the last week of January 2019, when my twin sons were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
After a brief pause, I replied, “it is a bit of a complicated explanation, but I promise it will make sense.”
I will always consider myself a lawyer and love the practice of law. At its best, our legal system advances social progress and protects those who are most vulnerable. While I spent many years developing expertise in corporate and intellectual property law, I remained committed to social justice and equity through pro bono work, activism, and mentorship of younger lawyers and law students from diverse backgrounds. And as I always harbored an interest in public health, much of my pro bono work was health-focused, in recognition that health is a fundamental human right. I contemplated pursuing an MPH degree for quite some time; shortly after becoming a parent, I made the jump.
Mailman was the compelling option for multiple reasons. First, it had the home field advantage because I was raising a family in New York City. Second, its reputation in my areas of interest—global climate change, sustainability, and health systems— is peerless. Finally, Mailman’s interdisciplinary pedagogic approach was extremely appealing given the complexity of public health issues, writ large. I accepted my admission offer and looked forward to starting a new chapter.
As August came into view, self-doubt and anxiety hitched along for a ride. After many years working in corporate America, I was going back to school in a different field, and as a single parent of children not yet two years old (and two dogs). How was I going to do it?
Although the Core was remarkably challenging, I was blessed with advisors, and professors who were sensitive to the realities of my life as a non-traditional student. They valued the perspective I brought to class through my unique background, professional status, and life experience. I also made several friends who helped foster an environment of mutual respect and intellectual curiosity. Combined with many long nights and weekends, I made it through my first semester.
In December, I learned about the Student Legislative Advocacy Initiative, an integral part of DC Career Week offered through the School’s Office of Career Services. The initiative afforded students the opportunity to meet with legislative offices in DC to advocate on public health matters. I was instantly intrigued because it reminded me of the clinics I participated in during law school, where I learned the nuances of impact advocacy, stakeholder management, and balancing short term priorities with long term strategic vision. The initiative was the perfect opportunity to combine my legal training and experience with the stellar public health education Mailman was providing.
After signing up, I was flattered to learn that I had been selected to lead the Student Legislative Advocacy Initiative team. All the pieces were coming together; I would have an opportunity to contribute to the larger public health conversation in DC by focusing my meetings on two topics I was focusing on in my graduate work: universal healthcare and global climate change.
Then, life threw a curveball. My sons were diagnosed with ASD and everything changed in an instant. Although I remained confident that my children would continue to define their identities and choose where life would take them, I could not escape or ignore the reality that this was our new normal. I would need to light a new path for us, but I did not know where to take the first step. In this vast field of unknowns, I was uncertain I had the bandwidth to continue to participate in the Initiative.
After deep but rapid reflection with my advisors, I decided to continue with the Initiative. I had confidence that Mailman would help me make it work. And I knew that my passion for public health issues had just been made more personal with my sons’ diagnosis coinciding with Congress taking up the reauthorization bill to the 2014 Autism CARES Act. This would be a rare opportunity to directly engage with the policymakers responsible for a law that would impact not just my children, but thousands of other Americans with ASD. This realization underscores a central tenet of public health—the discipline interrogates health issues at the population level, yet it is animated by a commitment to equitably extending and improving the lives of our communities, our families, our selves. As my children had benefited from the efforts of those who came before me, it was now my turn to give back to the community in a meaningful way.
The Mailman community was instrumental in helping move mountains to make leading the Student Legislative Advocacy Initiative a reality. Through the guidance of Ross Frommer, VP of Government and Community Affairs at Columbia, my professors and advisors who generously provided subject matter advice and angles to pursue in DC, and the unwavering support of friends who lifted my spirits and never lost confidence in me, I made it to DC and to six different congressional meetings where I advocated on behalf of my sons and the larger ASD community.
After I answered the question of why I wanted to pursue a public health degree, Sen. Casey’s legislative director continued, “Ok, that makes sense, and clearly you’ve done your homework. What do you think we should be doing? How would you amend the bill?”
Smiling, I pulled out a list of proposed next steps and my smartphone. “Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts. But before I start, I’d like to show you a picture of my sons, Asher and Galen.”
Julius Ybañez Towers is an MPH candidate in the General Public Health program. He received his BA in Classics & History from Florida State University and his JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
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