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Trailblazing YSPH Alumna Honored by City of New Haven

October 28, 2021

Distinguished YSPH alumna Irene Trowell-Harris was honored by the city of New Haven for her trailblazing accomplishments, exemplary service in public health and generous support of education.

In Trowell-Harris’s honor, October 21, 2021 was officially declared “Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris Day” in the Connecticut shoreline city, home to Yale University and the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH).

Trowell-Harris, R.N., M.P.H. ’73, Ed.D., FAAN, was the first African American woman in the history of the U.S. Air National Guard to be promoted to brigadier general and subsequently to two-star major general. She was also the first nurse and first woman to command an Air National Guard medical clinic when she was appointed commander of the 105th U.S. Air Force Clinic in Newburgh, N.Y., a position previously held by physicians.

A lifelong leader in promoting health care for veterans, Trowell-Harris served two U.S. presidents as director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Women Veterans, which monitors the welfare of more than 1.9 million women who have served in the Armed Forces.

Recognizing Trowell-Harris’s extensive service in public health and long-standing commitment to education, the Yale School of Public Health named its new Executive Online Master’s Degree in Public Health scholarship after her last June. The $10,000 scholarship is available to all students who enroll in the program regardless of financial need. Trowell-Harris said the Executive Online MPH scholarship designation was a “defining moment in her life” and one that left her speechless when she learned of it.

“I am so pleased to accept this wonderful honor from the city of New Haven,” Trowell-Harris said during a virtual ceremony honoring her day. “My education and experience at Yale helped me to excel in my career … specifically, learning so much about leadership, collaboration and mentoring.”

Trowell-Harris’s story is captured in her recent book, Bridges: A Life Building and Crossing Them. She was one of 11 children who grew up on an Atkins, South Carolina, cotton farm belonging to her grandfather, a former slave. She was able to pursue her interest in nursing after members of her local church raised $61.25 one Sunday in donated “nickels, dimes and quarters,” she said.

“That church provided the bridge I needed to get from New Jersey City University to Yale University and Columbia,” she said.

Trowell-Harris was named to the Yale School of Medicine Honor Roll for dedication to public service in 2001 and honored as a distinguished alum of the Yale School of Public Health in 2006. She was recognized as one of four women pioneers in public health by YSPH in 2019. Today, the distinguished alumni chair given to Trowell-Harris by the Yale School of Public Health now sits on display in the Atkins County Historical Museum.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, M.E.M./M.B.A. ’10, said Trowell-Harris exemplifies the important work public health professionals do every day and their importance to the community.

“Let us metaphorically bang pots and pans for you as we celebrate today,” he said.

YSPH Dean Sten H. Vermund said the school “was thrilled to have this celebratory event” honoring such a distinguished public health alumna. Vermund and other school representatives praised Trowell-Harris for her generous support of the Yale School of Public Health and its students.

In 2016, Trowell-Harris established the Irene Trowell-Harris Endowed Scholarship Fund at YSPH, which supports students enrolled in the school’s joint degree program with the Yale School of Nursing. As a class agent for the Yale School of Public Health, Trowell-Harris continues to inspire others to give so that more students can benefit from a YSPH education, regardless of their ability to pay.

“You are such a humble, gracious and generous person,” said YSPH Alumni Affairs Coordinator Dawn Carroll. “It has been my privilege to know you. You’ve been so giving of your time to the school and to our students. You never say ‘No.’”

Trowell-Harris’ leadership was also recognized by one of her mentees, Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Glendon Fraser, a past president of the Major General Irene Trowell-Harris Chapter of Tuskeegee Airmen Inc.

“I am so proud of that young lady for all that she has achieved. She is my idol. She is a mentor to me,” Fraser said during the New Haven ceremony. “When we decided in 1998 to take her name for our chapter … she told us she wanted us to be mentors to youth. I am glad to say over these 23-plus years as chapter president and program manager for the Red Tail Flight Academy, that we have mentored over 860 students through their high school careers and on to further education.”

Never missing an opportunity to support and educate, Trowell-Harris shared some advice for students during her event address.

“Regardless of your financial status in life, your humble beginnings,” she said, “you can be successful. It is such an honor to be associated with the Executive Online MPH program, the Yale School of Public Health and the city of New Haven. I really hope to be able to come visit you very soon.”

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on October 28, 2021