By Karen Angelo
After a visit to the Massachusetts State House, public health student Linda Lak feels more confident in her ability to improve community health through advocacy.
“Learning more about the process of getting legislation passed into law has been a valuable experience for me,” says Lak, who was one of 17 students on a recent class field trip to the State House. “You have to know how the system works.”
Jamie Klufts, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Public Health, organized the visit to bring to life the material she teaches in the course Politics and Advocacy in Public Health.
“The field trip allowed the students to better understand the state legislative process by exploring the State House, meeting elected officials and conversing with legislative staffers,” says Klufts, who served as an advocate for the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers prior to teaching at UML.
Students learned from legislators and staff members how they advocate for causes, increase awareness of issues and make the case for change. Professionals who do this work organize groups, lobby legislators and use media strategically to raise awareness on issues.
“Public health professionals are well-equipped to work in policy and advocacy because we understand that oftentimes, if a person is experiencing an adverse health outcome, it is because of a condition in the environment where the person lives, works, goes to school or plays. It’s not because of a fault of their own,” says Klufts. “By understanding the root causes of an issue, we can develop and recommend solutions that will work to improve health.”
After students toured the building, they were invited onto the House floor by Rep. Vanna Howard, who represents portions of Lowell and Chelmsford. Rep. Sean Garballey, who represents Arlington, introduced the students during the House's informal session. Both representatives are UMass Lowell political science alumni.
Lak, who says that getting involved in advocacy work “never crossed my mind,” has a new appreciation for the impact that health policies can have on communities.
“My friends and I shy away from the legislative system, with the mindset that ‘it's too complicated to change anything’ or ‘what can I do?’ After learning and understanding more about the topic, I can see myself getting involved in advocacy in the future,” says Lak, who immigrated from Cambodia and grew up in Lowell. “It’s important work that can bring significant improvements to health and well-being.”
In separate meetings, legislative staffers who have public health degrees shared their experiences with the students on how they do their jobs and how the legislative process works.
Public health student Srey Nuon Neang gained the most from these sessions.
“We learned how staff members used their public health background to bring issues in the community to their elected officials,” says Neang, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cambodia at age 13 and settled in Lowell. “They are the ones who work behind the scenes to ensure that the community’s voice is heard.”
Before taking courses on topics such as social determinants of health and policy, Neang thought that working in policy meant that you had to be a politician.
“Now I know that I want to work in advocacy to apply what I’ve learned and experienced at UMass Lowell to improve the lives of the people around me,” says Neang. “As a person of color, an immigrant and a first-generation student, I see many people in my community who face struggles and obstacles in their lives. I want to continue to learn and grow in this lifetime to play a role and make a positive impact on the communities I care about.”
Anthony Milisci, a public health and political science major, says that talking to staff members with public health degrees reinforced his plan to get into the Master of Public Health (MPH) program and pursue a career in health policy.
“Before the visit, I had doubts about going into government and policy work with a public health degree,” says Milisci. “Talking with staffers who have an MPH that work at the State House has really encouraged me to go for it.”