The Charger Blog

Student Advocates Meet with Lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

As part of the University’s Health Equity and Advocacy Fellowship, nearly a dozen students traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Connecticut lawmakers to push for proposed legislation that, they hope, will have a meaningful impact on public health.

November 17, 2021

By Jillian Freeto ’25, Peri Alexander ’23, Khyati Anil Rustagi ’23 MPH, Selena Chom ’21, ’23 MPH, Bryan Cadavos ’23, Ciara Wildes ’24, Lisa Do ’23

Group shot of students who traveled to washington D.C.
Students recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Connecticut lawmakers.

As part of the University of New Haven’s Health Equity and Advocacy Fellowship, several undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of majors recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for public health reform and to gain hands-on advocacy experience.

Created by Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH, an assistant professor of public health and assistant provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion, the fellowship supports research efforts around mental health care. In 2020, Dr. Tran was awarded a President’s Discretionary Grant from the Connecticut Health Foundation, an independent and private foundation dedicated to improving health equity in Connecticut, which he used to launch a new student-centered fellowship training program. This was the first time the foundation funded a project at the University. The fellowship program operates under the University’s School of Health Sciences and the WeEmbody Lab, Dr. Tran’s research working group of public health professionals and students. Dr. Tran was recognized as one of the National Association of Health Services Executives Connecticut Chapter’s honorees as part of its 2021 C-Suite Week of Celebration for creating this opportunity for students.

Although delayed a year because of the pandemic, students were grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in the program – and an advocacy trip to Washington, D.C. – and they share their experiences below.

Jillian Freeto ’25

The WeEmbody Lab fellowship is an enriching experience that I am so lucky to be a part of. This fellowship allowed me to meet more people in other class levels with the same passion for health equity and equality. We received Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) advocacy training and learned how to promote public health equity and address sociocultural factors. I was able to research policy translation and learn how to dismantle evidence-based information for policymakers.

This fellowship provided us the opportunity to use the skills we learned to take action. We met with the offices of two Connecticut representatives, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and U.S. Rep. James Himes. When speaking to Rep. Himes's assistant, we were told they would push him to cosponsor both the bills we discussed: the Momnibus Act of 2021 and the Improving Social Determinants of Health Act of 2021. We also were able to meet with Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy's office to discuss the best ways to go about promoting health equity and pushing lawmakers to make changes.

This fellowship allowed for the amazing experience of being able to go to Washington D.C., and enabled us to visit amazing sites, from the Library of Congress to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The best part of this experience was being able to work with such amazing people, making memories and lasting friendships.

Peri Alexander ’23

Being involved in the WeEmbody Lab Health Equity and Advocacy Fellowship has probably been the best part of my whole semester! I enjoyed being with such an amazing group of people who share the same passion for advocacy and health equity as I do. I enjoyed learning about the other fellows, their core values, and their reasons for joining the fellowship.

The trip as a whole was memorable, and I learned so much about health equity and what it means to advocate. I was so excited to experience Washington D.C., and all its glory while helping my community.

My experience speaking to the legislators was phenomenal. We advocated through the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), a nonprofit, independent professional association that represents a diverse membership of nearly 4,000 health education professionals. SOPHE conducts annual training a few days before each Advocacy Day, so we started our preparatory process there.

This year, we advocated for The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021 and the Social Determinants of Health Act of 2021. SOPHE trainers explained to us the layout of what will happen the day of the event and gave us tips on what to say when speaking to the legislators. The night before the event my fellowship group and I reviewed the documents, organized ourselves into teams, and decided what we would say to the lawmakers to make our case fluent and compelling.

On Advocacy Day, we spoke to the lawmakers, advocated for both Acts, and thanked them after for supporting our cause. The lawmakers I personally spoke with were Connecticut U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut U.S. Representative James Himes, and Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy. I enjoyed speaking with them as they seemed calm, respectful, and interested in our fellowship. I finished the event feeling proud of myself, the fellowship, and the University for supporting us. I also thank our generous donors for funding such a great and educational experience.

Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH (center) and students in Washington, D.C.
Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH (center) and students in Washington, D.C.
Khyati Anil Rustagi ’23 MPH

The day I came to know about my selection for the WeEmbody Health Equity and Advocacy Fellowship and the upcoming visit to Washington, D.C., I was filled with joy, and was excited to embark on a new journey.

This program allowed me to learn about two critical pieces of legislation — The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act 2021 and The Improving Social Determinants of Health Act 2021. Maternal mortality has been a concern for ages and has also failed to draw the attention of lawmakers globally. Hence, I was curious about the Momnibus Act, as it aims to address this crisis among Black mothers who are three to four times more at risk of dying compared to white mothers.

My team and I were glad to meet the staffs of Connecticut federal lawmakers Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, Rep. James A. Himes, and Sen. Chris Murphy, and we successfully garnered Rep. Himes's support for the Momnibus Bill. It was quite heartening to note that plans are afoot to make critical investments in growing and diversifying the perinatal workforce and for providing training and funding for improving maternal health outcomes through this act.

Furthermore, I got to explore the cultural diversity and heritage of Washington, D.C., a city I always dreamed of visiting. I was mesmerized by the old and intricate architecture of such places as The Capitol, Library of Congress, Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial, and the Washington Post, to name a few. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the rich history, civilizations, and immense contribution made by Afro-Americans in building the world's most powerful nation were a sight to witness. I found the exhibits beautifully showcased the efforts made by the Black individuals in sports and entertainment. Several even captured the horrifying moments of atrocities inflicted on them.

During the trip, I was able to empathize with the discrimination and atrocities committed against women and people of color, as I have witnessed the same in my home country of India, which has always disturbed me.

In the end, I feel very fortunate to be a part of such a diverse team, as it helped me make new friends who shared their upbringings and pasts with me. The program broadened my knowledge in understanding the issues prevalent in society and the role I can play in reducing these gaps by promoting health equity for all backgrounds.

Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Alvin Tran for not only being an amazing mentor, but also for his constant motivation, and for seeing my potential and for giving me this wonderful opportunity to advocate for such a noble cause.

Selena Chom ’21, ’23 MPH

Being a part of the WeEmbody Lab Fellowship and visiting Washington, D.C., was an unforgettable experience. I’ve been a part of the fellowship for three years, and it’s been an honor working with Dr. Tran and my classmates.

During our fall break, we were invited to meet with Connecticut legislators about two bills that would essentially ensure that more research will be done to help bridge the gap of health inequity for vulnerable populations and families. It was my first time visiting Washington, D.C., and advocating for health care policies that I am passionate about. I learned so much about advocating and using my voice for the voiceless.

It made me realize that even as students, our voices matter. I could tell that each one of us was excited to not only talk to legislators, but also to urge them to sign bills that would change so many lives. The personal stories, the determination, and the teamwork all made me so proud to be a part of this journey.

Taking on this role was more than a personal achievement; I took on this role to fight for other people and to fight for health equity. While this was my first time, I know my journey as a health advocate is not going to stop here. This was an eye opener for me and made me realize how important it is to use my academic career as a public health student to my advantage. This was a great learning experience that I will always remember.

Bryan Cadavos ’23

Initially when I was applying for the WeEmbody Lab I was hesitant and struggled to find what I could do to stand out more than other applicants. When I got the letter stating that I was one of 10 chosen to be part of the WeEmbody Lab, I was ecstatic. I knew this was an opportunity that I could not pass up.

The fellowship opened doors to learning and acknowledging why it is important to advocate for public health and the significant impact that voices can have, especially when the thoughts are in unison. This experience was helpful in learning more about the social determinants of health, but also about the Momnibus Act. I was able to take the documents provided by SOPHE and study the two bills that we were going to discuss with Connecticut lawmakers.

I was tasked with taking meeting minutes and also writing letters of gratitude to the Connecticut lawmakers who took the time out of their day to hear us advocate. Everyone had a role in speaking, but I was able to see the individuality within the people who represented the WeEmbody Lab, which was a very gratifying experience.

Student's in D.C. for the Health Equity and Advocacy Fellowship.
Students enjoyed exploring Washington, D.C. while visiting as part of the University’s Health Equity and Advocacy Fellowship.
Ciara Wildes ’24

Being a part of the WeEmbody Health Equity and Advocacy Fellowship was a life-changing educational experience. I have done much advocacy work in the past. Being a WeEmbody Fellow has allowed me to develop new advocacy skills all while being a part of an important cause.

As a WeEmbody Fellow, I had the opportunity to collaborate with other students on campus, both undergraduate and graduate, from all different backgrounds. We worked with one another to organize a plan, meet with legislators and senators, and lobby for two important health equity acts: the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021(H.R. 959) and the Improving Social Determinants of Health Act of 2021 (H.R.379).

My favorite part of being a WeEmbody Fellow is that everyone I worked with had a story, or a reason, that shaped the work that we did. Our reasons were very diverse, just like we were, however we all were unified with a common goal: to push for health equity.

Lisa Do ’23

Being a part of the WeEmbody Lab at the University was an unforgettable experience for me because I have gained more insight in public health. Not only was I able to advocate for two legislative bills, but I built long lasting connections with my other fellows.

I remember being super excited about getting accepted into the fellowship because I knew this was a great opportunity to learn about advocating for health equity. I really enjoyed working with a team that comes from all diverse backgrounds because we were able to share our differences and connect with each other.

The actual meeting with the legislators went well because we were well prepared and knew what to say. Also, our adviser, Dr. Tran, encouraged us throughout the process and gave us tips when needed. He was not only a great mentor but acted as our friend.

At first, I was very nervous about talking with the representatives, but, with my fellows, I knew I had nothing to be scared of. We not only got to advocate for two very important bills, but we heard their input as well. This experience made me realize how important it is to advocate for health equity because I knew little about the social determinants of health before this fellowship. This newfound knowledge I have gained taught me how to fulfill tasks that are relevant to my future career path and sharpened the skills I have already possessed.

Although I am not a health science nor a public health major, I believe this experience helped me to connect the public health frameworks to my everyday life. I have learned how to work with others and to have compassion for one another as we all come from different backgrounds.

Jillian Freeto ’25 and Peri Alexander ’23 are health sciences majors at the University. Khyati Anil Rustagi ’23 MPH and Selena Chom ’21, ’23 MPH are candidates in the University’s Master of Public Health program. Bryan Cadavos ’23 is a genetics & biotechnology major. Ciara Wildes ’24 is a criminal justice major. Lisa Do ’23 is forensic science major.