Blazing his own trail

Master of public health alum creates his own path to the State Capitol

Tony Lapiz didn’t know much about the public health profession, but he knew he wanted to improve community health through policy. Through an Oregon State alumna he met during an undergraduate internship, he learned that a degree in public health could help him achieve that goal.

Still not convinced graduate school was the right move, he took a chance and applied.

When he was accepted, he took it as a sign and three months later the Santa Maria, California native moved to Oregon.

Improving public health through policy change

Prior to graduating with his master’s degree, Tony was working full-time as legislative director for Oregon Representative Dan Rayfield, realizing his goal of improving health through policy.

The first bill Tony, MPH ’17, worked on was to improve outcomes and health for youth exiting correctional facilities in Oregon. Youth re-entering society were not allowed to interact with the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) staff who had supervised them during their sentence — cutting them off from someone they’d come to trust.

The bill addressed this scenario by allowing the Department of Corrections (DOC) to coordinate services offered by the OYA. Now, the OYA can step in and help youth apply for college, federal student aid, jobs, health care and more.

After the bill passed, the OYA brought youth to visit the Capitol building where Tony got to learn their stories and the impact the policy change made on their lives.

“Like being able to put face-to-name, we got to put face-to-policy,” Tony says. “It helps you remember that you may fail 100 times and bills die constantly, but the one bill you can pass is actually going to make a difference.”

Learning to think critically

Tony says his public health education helps him think critically and question if proposed laws address the root of the problem — or a symptom.

“If it’s just treating a symptom, and that’s the goal, then that’s fine,” Tony says. “But I think laws should address the upstream, preventive, root causes to create initial change and then long-lasting change.”

Tony credits his professors for helping him develop this level of critical thinking.

“Learning how to tear apart journal articles, to find issues and possible flaws in studies, has helped me in the legislative process,” Tony says. “I treat bills the same way we’d treat journal articles.”

As legislative director, Tony’s main responsibility is legislative research. He works with stakeholders to vet ideas and investigate any unintended consequences tied to a policy change.

He also works with constituents to ensure laws are being upheld. For instance, “If someone isn’t getting Medicaid through the Oregon Health Plan, I facilitate the conversations with the agency to try and get it resolved.”

Because Rep. Rayfield is co-chair of the Health and Human Services Sub-Committee of Ways and Means, Tony bridges the gap between stakeholders and Rep. Rayfield to advocate for funding. “When the legislature passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act in 2017, I met with members of the coalition, learned about the different reasons why they were advocating for it, and then helped Rep. Rayfield advocate for the passage of the bill.”

Connections open doors

Although working in the Oregon State Capitol wasn’t initially in Tony’s career plan, when opportunity knocked he stepped right through the door.

As a first-year graduate student, he was working with Community Outreach Inc. in Corvallis. Rep. Rayfield volunteered at one of its events and started talking politics with Tony. The conversation ended with Tony being offered an internship.

Tony was now balancing school with a graduate teaching assistantship, an internship and serving as a member of the Army National Guard.

One month later, a part-time position opened up and Tony leaped on the opportunity.

During the 2017 legislative session, a full-time position became available and Rep. Rayfield extended Tony an offer.

Rep. Rayfield says, “Tony’s ability to build strong working relationships and his drive to always produce superior quality work have been big reasons for his success.”

Tony’s willingness to connect and his openness to new opportunities have shaped more than his recent career moves.

Striking out on his own

Tony is the first from his family to pursue a university degree. “No one in my family went to college. It was this vague, silly, aspirational thing I only saw in movies,” he says.

Despite this, he applied to Humboldt State University. Thanks to an ideally timed business deal, his grandparents were able to support his freshman year. He fell in love with college but didn’t want to be a financial burden, so he joined the Army National Guard to develop leadership skills and receive tuition assistance.

Tony’s interest in sports led him to major in kinesiology. While in college, he fell in love with debate and learning about policy. “I learned you can make a larger, broader community impact with policy,” Tony says. “That is what shifted my goals from working one-on-one, like with personal training, to growing that impact to the community, state and national level.”

He added political science to his studies and graduated with two undergraduate degrees in 2015.

Path to public health

“In the end, choosing public health was a culmination of kinesiology and political science and trying to mesh them together to improve health through policy,” Tony says.

His choice was also a personal one. “A lot of people in my family struggle with health,” he says. “Learning about health and obesity trends across the country – and all of the negative health outcomes and costs that are associated with it – is my personal drive to reduce childhood obesity and to make communities and neighborhoods more advantageous to physical activity and healthy lives.”

At Oregon State, Tony concentrated in health promotion and health behavior (HPHB) and took mostly health management and policy (HMP) classes for his electives — an uncommon combination. He says his advisor, Peggy Dolcini, PhD, was supportive but wanted to ensure he could effectively combine the skills he was gaining.

“Each HPHB MPH student develops an area of emphasis, which offers students a unique opportunity to begin to shape their career trajectories,” Peggy says. “Tony did an excellent job of combining his interests in health promotion and health behavior with policy through his elective coursework.”

Tony says this blend of coursework gives him a unique lens that he can bring to the legislative process.

“It’s so rewarding to see the growing emphasis on evidence-based programs and policies being championed in the legislature and to see the impact that Tony’s work is having at the state level,” Peggy says.

Advice for public health students

“Tony represents the best of what we hope to see in MPH students,” Peggy says, “including a strong academic focus, a real passion for addressing important health issues and a willingness to take the road less traveled.”

Tony, who frequently presents to public health classes, tells students who’d like to get involved in policy to start making connections.

“Make a personal connection. Get to know state legislators – what they need and what they want to do – and figure out a way you can help, whether that’s an internship or volunteering,” Tony says. “Build connections with as many people as possible. That’s how I decided to go to grad school, just by getting coffee with someone, and that essentially led to me having this job.”

He also suggests getting involved with stakeholder groups. “There is an interest group for every single thing that you could be interested in — whether that’s environmental health, food safety or reproductive health care. Every single niche almost always has a group that’s advocating for that interest.”

Tony says there are endless opportunities to get involved, especially in public health. “It’s like the business degree of health in that you can find a place somewhere. You can bring the unique lens of public health to that entity.”

The future is evidence-based, and change is possible

Tony has never been prescriptive with his career steps. By expressing his interests, following his inclinations and developing relationships he’s created opportunities.

He intends to continue this practice, but once he’s in a decision-making role he’d like to partner with educational institutions, such as Oregon State, to ensure policies are politically feasible and evidence-based. “If we’re going to vote on granting $100 million for a new program or policy, I’d like to make sure that it’s vetted by stakeholder groups on the legislative side, but also educational and research experts in the field.”

Tony also advocates against the pessimistic opinion of government and policy. He says there is still an opportunity for individuals to drive change. “I love that we’re in Oregon and we live in what’s commonly called the beacon of progressive politics. Other states are looking to us to see what examples we’re setting. At the local level, realize that it’s still accessible and there is still an opportunity to make change. Oregon is great.”