On Feb. 28, three Vassar seniors were selected out of 500 students to have their op-ed submissions published on Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health’s website. The students, Anthony Lanzillo ’22, Sandra Yu ’22 and Anna Roh ’22 wrote about various topics in the realm of public health, drawing from their individual passions and from their coursework both at Vassar and Columbia.
Vassar offers a dual-degree BA/MPH program with Columbia, where students spend the fall semester of their senior year at Columbia and complete their senior-year spring at Vassar, before finishing an accelerated master’s program the following year at Columbia’s Mailman School. These three students, as current Vassar seniors, have already completed their fall semester at Columbia and will complete their MPH degrees next year.
Lanzillo wrote about the ongoing assault in state legislatures across the country on youth transgender rights, from a public health perspective. “I chose my op-ed early last semester, and wrote it in the context of an Arkansas law (currently held up in the courts) [sic] that prohibited providing any type of gender-affirming care to minors,” recalled Lanzillo.
He noted that advocating for transgender rights can be an uphill battle, saying, “I know there is a genuine transphobia that this op-ed can’t really work against, but I wrote it with the hope that there is an element of fixable ignorance…I wanted to educate people on how much puberty-blockers in particular can improve lives and improve health, because it’s honestly amazing how important they can be.”
Meanwhile at Columbia, Yu had the opportunity to learn about foreign healthcare systems in relation to the U.S. healthcare system. She recollected, “The topic of my op-ed was the need for interoperability between electronic health record systems, or in other words, a universal EHR.”
She continued, “At Vassar, I learned that community engagement is incredibly important to creating change. I thought an op-ed that could spark some new conversation about an overlooked issue could ultimately make a difference in how we frame the status quo of our healthcare system.”
Yu talked more about the implications of her op-ed topic, saying, “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I rarely thought much of making doctors’ appointments, receiving diagnostic tests, and showing employers or schools my health information…The COVID-19 pandemic showed the United States that these inconveniences could mean the difference between life or death.”
She went on, “For example, not being able to confirm vaccination status during an emergency could mean a deadly virus spreads to healthcare workers, who then can spread it to additional vulnerable patients.”
Roh was inspired by a story she saw about the conditions faced by pregnant women in prisons and jails. In a written correspondence, she explained, “I knew that I wanted to advocate for better conditions for individuals in prisons and jails because how people are treated at these facilities is a pressing, yet overlooked public health matter. I also wanted to write about a population that is not well-represented when it comes to prison reform.”
She elaborated, “When doing research for my op-ed, I came across a story in my local Denver newspaper about a woman who was forced to give birth alone in her jail cell and was shocked to learn that something like this could have happened. I would not want any woman to have to go through something as perilous as giving birth alone in jail and decided to write my op-ed to increase awareness about the conditions pregnant women in jail endure and advocate for proper screening/treatment for these women.”
Roh wanted to raise awareness of the undignified treatment these pregnant women endured, hopefully encouraging readers to seek policy changes in their communities. “I felt like it was important that this content should be published because pregnancy is such a delicate and precious period for women and their children. The trauma pregnant individuals endure in prisons/jails has shown to negatively impact the health of their children, so it isn’t only the mother’s health at risk but her baby’s,” she said.
Upon learning that their pieces had been chosen for publication, all three students expressed excitement and shock at being selected from such a prestigious pool of students. “I was really excited!” recalled Yu. “I never expected it to be chosen, but I’m incredibly grateful it could reach so many people.”
Lanzillo shared a similar sentiment, stating, “[I was] absolutely pleased-as-punch to be selected. There are a lot of fantastically skilled adults at Columbia Mailman, some who write professionally, and so it was quite surprising. We weren’t told who else was selected, so when the five were published, it was even more fun to see two other Vassar students!”
Roh felt similarly, recalling, “I was genuinely shocked. Just genuinely shocked because I didn’t think my submission stood out in particular amongst the hundreds of other submissions. It was an unexpected but pleasant surprise.”
Winning at this prestigious competition has helped the students realize the caliber of Vassar academics. Lanzillo said, “This was the first time I realized that Vassar truly has prepared us well for succeeding at Columbia (and in the world)!”