#2020Trojan: Meet Hayley W. Sayrs, Master of Public Health program graduate

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Hayley W. Sayrs earns her Master of Public Health with a concentration in health services and policy.

Pictured: Hayley W. Sayrs. Image by Andrew Zaw.
Pictured: Hayley W. Sayrs. Image by Andrew Zaw.

Why did you choose to pursue your degree?

I grew up in a family that lacked the stability and support I needed in order to thrive. I lived all over the country and made friends with people from all over the world. Growing up, I relied heavily on school, mentors, after-school programs and community centers for my safety. I left home and started working at the age of 14. If my aunt and uncle hadn’t adopted me at 16, I may not have graduated high school. From these adverse early childhood experiences, and the opportunity I was given to heal, my passion for health justice grew. During my undergraduate program, I started a farmers market that incorporated wellness, education and outreach to surrounding communities. I moved on to building gardening education programs in East San Antonio. I sat on the Food Policy Council and worked on grants and advocacy for the Farm to School work group. 

I liked the work I was doing but realized that in order to make sustainable changes, I needed to gain more tools and go after the upstream factors–hence going back to school for my MPH. I was excited about the opportunity to work in the field in Los Angeles, and in a state that is progressive enough to actually realize the changes we were advocating for back in Texas.

What has been your biggest accomplishment during your studies?

Throughout this program I have grown tremendously, both personally and professionally. My biggest accomplishment was being selected as a Gehr Summer Innovator in 2019. As a Gehr fellow, I was able to jump start a collaborative project to better understand and address social isolation among hospitalized patients in the safety net. Through this project, I have learned a lot about quality improvement and how to build a strong team from my project mentor, Dr. Chase Coffey. Our team included hospital leadership, social work staff, medical students and community-based agencies. After the summer, I continued on as a Gehr fellow in the fall of 2019 and spring of this year.

My goal is to submit our qualitative findings from inpatient surveys on the barriers and resources patients cited as helping with their loneliness for publication this summer. The project has evolved into the Help End All Loneliness (HEAL) initiative and will be continued after I graduate. Our pilot was able to successfully connect several patients after discharge to programs happening at the Wellness Center, such as acupuncture and a nutrition class for diabetics. Future research will be focused on how one’s isolation score changes after being connected to a patient navigator, a community-based resource or program. Hospitals around the country are coming up with innovative ways to address social determinants and reduce emergency room visits by uniting medical services, social services and local organizations to create patient-centered care.

What's an important lesson you learned?

It’s always better to over communicate. In public health you’re oftentimes uniting a wide range of community stakeholders and partners that sometimes have opposing interests or goals. Our role as public health professionals is to bridge that gap, connect the dots, and move from the theoretical to the practical. I want to thank my adviser, Dr. Michael Cousineau, for guiding me on how to do this work effectively and for helping so many students succeed in the program and in the field.

What's one of your favorite memories from your program?

When I first moved to Los Angeles I lived 10 minutes from the Health Sciences Campus in East LA. I stumbled upon a nonprofit called In the Making (ITM) that was a block from my house and immediately connected with their CEO, Maribel Valdez, who wanted to open a thrift boutique that would be operated by youth and complimented by a mentorship program. I began volunteering as a mentor but quickly realized I could contribute in other ways too. I put my grant writing skills to practice and worked with a team of students to film an explainer video. We entered the USC Marshall social innovation pitch competition and made it to the final round. Our pitch highlighted the unique model at ITM, blending social enterprise with community action to help at-risk youth find stable employment in a safe and supportive environment.

Although we didn’t win the competition, it was a great experience. Working directly with youth, we have hosted community-wide service events and advocated for the needs of the youth and families before the Board of Supervisors. I recently received an award for mentoring from the Mixed Roots Foundation and will continue to be part of their organization after I graduate. I highly recommend joining a program where you’re able to mentor or tutor youth in the surrounding community. This is such a special and personal way to give back and there is a huge need throughout LA County, especially among foster youth and those in single-parent households.

What will you miss most and why?

Hands-down the faculty, staff, and students. It is rare that you are able to be surrounded by people that you work with but also look up to. Through this program, I have found several mentors and have made lifelong friends that believe in my dreams and encourage me to realize them. It seems like there are endless possibilities in the world of public health, especially in Los Angeles, and no matter where you land you will have an impact.

What are you doing after you graduate?

I am currently working full-time at Violence Intervention Program Community Mental Health Center. My role as Research Coordinator allows me to connect with various agencies in both the public and private sector throughout LA County. The philosophy at VIP is simple: “How can we help you?” From this question, doctors can establish trust with patients, coworkers can feel more supported, and families can begin to heal. I take pride in working with Dr. Astrid Heger, Founder and CEO of VIP, who has demonstrated how clear communication and transparency are key to solving difficult problems. Under her leadership, I have worked on research projects, grants, and program coordination that aim to improve the delivery of healthcare and social services to youth and families impacted by violence.

VIP-CMHC is a first responding agency and we have been working tirelessly during the COVID-19 pandemic. While I feel this crisis has brought many together, it has also exposed many vulnerabilities in our communities and in our public health infrastructure locally and globally. I am concerned about the growing rates of gender-based violence, food insecurity, and unemployment that will continue to perpetuate health disparities if we don’t take action swiftly and have a change in leadership at the federal level come November.

What do you look forward to in your career path?

This past year, I served as the president of the Master of Public Health Student Association (MaPHSA). Service work has always been my love language. I have continued to find myself in working with and for others. In my role, I learned a lot about my leadership style and the challenges associated with carrying out the democratic process— even on a small scale. Public health is interdisciplinary by design and thus requires us to sometimes put aside our personal beliefs, reach across the aisle, and find compromises that result in a greater benefit to society. I look forward to working on the big picture but never forgetting the details. I hope to use data to advocate for better policies that protect and fulfill our fundamental human rights such as the right to health. I envision myself working with the public sector as well as private sector to address global challenges that require local solutions. I love that no matter what role you play, public health asks all of us to take action, bulldozing down barriers to improve health equity, fearlessly trailblazing a new path forward.

What advice do you have for future grads?

Trust the process. Sometimes this work can be extremely frustrating and tiring and it may not seem like you’re actually pushing the needle. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in all of the world’s problems. When you’re feeling lost, reach out to your mentors. They’ve all been there. Prioritize your mental health and self-care, I promise you won’t regret it. Continue to stay connected with your support system and take advantage of all the resources that this program and this university have to offer. Don’t sign up for something just for your resume, do everything with love and passion and you will be astonished at where that takes you. Never underestimate your power and don’t be afraid to say sorry when you’ve made a mistake. Take ownership of your role as a student, and leverage it to make significant and long-lasting change in the program and surrounding community!