- Shiller Foundation Gift Expands Students’ Public Health Learning Experiences
As a YSPH student studying chronic disease epidemiology, Vanessa Blas, MPH ’23, is interested in reproductive health and maternal and child health. She’s also passionate about advancing health equity and eliminating health disparities in traditionally underserved communities.
She found a perfect match for her academic and professional interests when she was selected for a fellowship at Waterbury Bridge to Success (BTS), a partnership of more than 90 community and civic leaders, educators, and organizations working for equitable change for Waterbury’s children, youth, and families. Of particular interest to Blas is Bridge to Success’s #Day43 Black maternal health initiative, which aims to transform systems and raise awareness of Black women’s maternal health in Waterbury.
“It was a great experience working as the #Day43 Health Equity Research Fellow, as I constantly felt supported by everyone on the BTS team,” Blas said. “Through this fellowship, I learned a lot about science and health communication and writing, valuable skills in the medical and public health fields.”
Blas is one of several students to benefit from the YSPH Health Equity Fellowship Program (HEFP) coordinated by the Office of Public Health Practice along with the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and Southern Connecticut State University. The Fellowship Program has supported 23 equity fellowships since 2020. The fellows attend YSPH and SCSU.
Three new fellowships focused specifically on equity and maternal health are now included in the HEFP, thanks to a generous gift from the Robert and Virginia Shiller Foundation. In addition to support for students, the Shiller Foundation gift provides three inaugural community organizations—All Our Kin, Hands on Peru, and Waterbury Bridge to Success Partnership—with funding to support new partnerships with the HEFP.
For her summer HEFP internship, Olivia M. Rua, MPH ’23, worked with All Our Kin, which helps family child care providers with licensing. Rua is in the chronic disease epidemiology, maternal and child health promotion track. Her work through the HEFP has provided her with the proverbial leg up on professional experience.
While involved in her internship, Rua familiarized herself with current licensing regulations and how the organization helps providers through the licensing process. She also researched lead in drinking water and the lead drinking water analysis that is required by the state for child care providers. The experience taught Rua the importance of communication in public health when working with various partners, such as municipal stakeholders and the Connecticut Department of Public Health.
“From this research with these stakeholders, I was able to create qualitative analysis reports to help guide All Our Kin in supporting family child care providers with the lead drinking water analysis,” Rua said.
Jessica Robles, YSPH ’23, was a Health Equity Fellow hosted by Hands on Peru as part of the YSPH Global Health Concentration.
Located in Trujillo, Peru, the organization focuses on improving access to health by empowering the local population through public health awareness and teaching.
“Over the summer, we created a 10-week health education program geared toward helping mothers provide well-balanced meals by focusing on culturally acceptable, cost-effective, and sustainable food,” Robles said. Each topic covered, such as school lunches, consisted of a two-part course: education and cooking. The program’s goal was to increase nutritional knowledge and empower women to provide a well-balanced meal for their families. Program data indicates they were successful.
Hands on Peru co-founder and Executive Director Katie Baric said the YSPH fellowships are extremely helpful in measuring outcomes and increasing program sustainability.
“The students assist our local program coordinators and teach them about best public health implementation practices and data collection,” Baric said. “The training is a two-way street. Hands on Peru serves as a platform for students to engage in participatory, community-based public health programs, and the student serves as a guide and teacher for local staff in terms of data collection and impact evaluation.”
She added the organization could not have done some of its essential work without the support of Robles, the fellowship, and the donors who funded it.
For Robert and Virginia Shiller, sharing their wealth and supporting social programs is a core part of their life philosophy. Robert Shiller, PhD, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale, said he wants to dispel the myth that people who go into finance and banking do it solely for the purpose of increasing their personal wealth. He wrote a book in 2021, Finance and the Good Society, that discusses the concept of “creative philanthropy.”
“Government does a lot for us, but governments tend to become bureaucratic, and they don’t perform as creatively as we’d like,” Shiller said. “The Yale School of Public Health’s Health Equity Fellowships bring different people and organizations together and allow for creative voices.”
Virginia Shiller, PhD, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center, said the foundation is still evolving, but the gift to support the Health Equity Fellowship Program was a natural fit because “we’ve always felt that family planning organizations were very worthy and often underfunded.”
Derek Shiller, their son, is a valued trustee of the Shiller Foundation and sees a pattern in its charitable giving. In addition to helping people who are dealing with unfortunate situations and trying to improve their lives, the foundation supports work that is innovative and improves the way that things are done.
“It’s one thing to be able to help out someone who needs it today, but to figure out a way that that can be made more sustainable—that’s something my parents appreciate,” he said.
Susan Nappi, MPH ’01, executive director of the YSPH Office of Public Health Practice, touted the fellowship program and the Shiller Foundation’s donation.
“The support we have received from Drs. Robert and Virginia Shiller allowed us to explore an internship model that not only provides support for our students, but for our community organizations as well,” Nappi said. “This is the type of equity we strive for—one that honors our relationships with our community partners.”