Jessie Cheung, Staff Photographer

Students, faculty and alumni of the School of Public Health gathered on Oct. 15 for Alumni Day, when school affiliates tackled issues of social justice and alumni presented four awards. 

The Yale School of Public Health focused on the themes of health equity and social justice during its Alumni Day events for 2021. Among the events was the presentation of awards by the Association of Yale Alumni in Public Health, or AYAPH. Three of these awards went to individuals for their achievements, while a Special Recognition Award was introduced and presented to Dean Sten Vermund, honoring the entire School of Public Health for its pandemic response.

“The Special Recognition Award was established this year by the Alumni Board of Directors, in light of the extraordinary contributions made by the School of Public Health in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic,” said Ann Prestipino MPH ’80, the AYAPH Awards Committee chair.

According to Prestipino, the board decided to give an award to the entire school because the COVID-19 response was a holistic effort, with contributions from both students and faculty.

In addition to the Special Recognition Award, three other awards were presented to individuals during the event. This year, Prestipino said that the awards were weighted heavily towards those who have done significant work related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of these was the Award for Excellence, which went to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky.

“This award is based on a nominee’s achievement and outstanding contribution to any disciplinary field within public health, including service to the community or to the Yale School of Public Health, and/or to advocacy for social policy advances which promote social justice and human rights,” Prestipino said.

In a recorded speech, Walensky accepted the award and discussed how the CDC is working to combat structural inequalities.

Walensky described some of the health inequalities that she has witnessed during the pandemic and emphasized the need to eliminate barriers to equitable health care. She noted that the source of many health disparities is racism, which she declared a public health threat in April of this year in a statement published by the CDC.

“I accept this award recognizing that I stand on the shoulders of so many whose teachings I have benefited from, whose stamina I have emulated, and whose wisdom has shaped the work I do today, ” Walensky said. “Please know, I share this award with each of them … and with all of you.”

The Distinguished Alumni Award was presented to Dechen Wangmo MPH ’07. Wangmo is the health minister of the Kingdom of Bhutan, and also served as president of the 74th World Health Assembly in May of this year.

Prestipino said that this award recognizes alumni with distinguished careers in public health as teachers, researchers or practitioners. 

According to Prestipino, Wangmo did strong work with vaccination in her home country, where the vaccination rate quickly surpassed 90 percent. Prestipino also noted Wangmo’s impressive background in other public health issues, including HIV and cancer screening and supporting cancer research.

According to Dechen, Bhutan’s successful pandemic response came from taking very conservative measures, including closing borders, instituting mandatory quarantines and focusing heavily on testing. In addition to her own efforts, she attributed the high vaccination levels to a society-wide response and the leadership of both the king and the prime minister, who used to be a doctor.

“I think Yale has played a very instrumental role in shaping … who I am as a public health professional,” Wangmo told the News. “My interactions with faculty in the classrooms and outside have had a pretty big influence on who I am today, so I really want to thank the faculty and the management of the school and the alumni board as well.”

Lt. Lisa Huang MPH ’17 received the Eric Mood New Professional Award, which Prestipino says “recognizes the career of an alumnus or an alumna who is a promising new professional in the field of public health.”

According to Prestipino, Huang has done an exemplary job serving the Indian Health Service, and is currently serving the Ojibwe tribe of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. 

“She was instrumental in ensuring that people on the reservation had appropriate face masks and PPEs provided for other healthcare providers,” Prestipino said. “And she also collaborated with the Army National Guard to provide COVID-19 screening tests to residents of the reservation.”

In addition to presenting alumni awards, several virtual panels were held during Alumni Day. Social and behavioral sciences professor Ijeoma Opara participated in one of these panels, during which she discussed social justice alongside other faculty members in her department.

In an email, Opara wrote that her work as the founder and director of the Substance Abuse and Sexual Health Lab centers on drug prevention through an anti-racist lens and uses community-based participatory research. Additionally, Opara launched the Dreamer Girls Project, which focuses on STI and drug prevention for Black girls. According to Opara, she started the project after her father died. She originally aimed to help Black girls deal with the loss of a parent.

Also on the panel was social and behavioral sciences professor Danya Keene, the faculty director of the new U.S. Health Justice Concentration. Keene said that the idea for the concentration came from student interest back in 2018. 

According to Keene, the School of Public Health already had a strong global health concentration, but there were not the same opportunities for students wishing to address inequalities in the U.S. and in New Haven. Over an 18-month planning process, the curriculum was developed with input from faculty, community partners and students. It launched in spring 2021 with 18 students.

“The central objectives of the concentration are for students to examine how historical and current systems of privilege and power, related to race, but also class, gender, sexual orientation and other identities, create unequal burdens on health that are avoidable and unjust,” Keene said. 

As an attendee of Alumni Day, Prestipino said that some of the quality networking opportunities of an in-person event were not possible in the virtual format. However, she said that the event was still a valuable opportunity to look at the work being conducted at the School of Public health and for students, faculty and alumni to engage in conversations.

“I really enjoyed participating at Alumni Day,” Opara said. “The alumni seemed really excited about our panel and it gave me the opportunity to talk about my work and present it to my colleagues, so I am happy I was a part of it.”

The Yale School of Public Health was founded in 1915.