Pilar Mendez (BS ’15) is a second year law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She earned her undergraduate degree at NYU Steinhardt in public health, and then an MPH in health policy at George Washington University in 2017. In Washington she worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health before deciding that law school was the essential step to gaining a more holistic view of the policy-making process, as well as the skills to advocate for marginalized populations.
Currently, Pilar is the first paid legal fellow in U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth’s Chicago office where she assists with legal strategy, casework, and health outreach efforts. She credits the office for teaching her first-hand how legislative activities and policies impact work on the ground and among Illinois constituents. We spoke to her about her academic journey from NYU Steinhardt to the senator’s office.
Your academic journey has taken you from NYU Steinhardt, to a master’s degree in health policy, to law school, and now to Senator Tammy Duckworth’s Office. Can you tell me how your work at NYU shaped your interests?
At NYU, the faculty really encouraged me to participate in a number of internships and extracurricular activities, which allowed me to get a better understanding of how to tackle leading public health concerns from multiple perspectives. I worked at research institutions, the university, non-profits, and with the local health department to understand how to enhance one’s health by focusing on the social determinants of health, or the non-health aspects of disease.
I also studied abroad, participated in a health-related service opportunity, and took a class with an abroad field study component every semester of my NYU career. This opened my eyes to how a country’s national infrastructure impacted the health of its citizens. I became fascinated with understanding the barriers and obstacles that are in place for those seeking to obtain quality healthcare. I did not realize until I started taking policy courses that intersected with public health as an undergrad that I found my niche.
Working on the ground, with individuals, on very specific issues, is both noble and critical. However, I was constantly hitting walls when it came to what to do next, and how to translate research and data into sustainable policies that positively affect population health. I pursued an MPH to hone my skills, determine exactly what I wanted to do in the field, learn how to best work with diverse stakeholders and key players, and better understand how policy can be an important tool to improve not only individual health, but increase more broadly access to health care services.
Practically speaking, I knew to increase my credibility and clout in my public health career, I needed an MPH. Policy analysis and ensuring equal enjoyment and treatment of our laws and policies for everyone, especially those living on the margins, are vital to achieve the public’s health, and it all started with my learning of how redlining in New York City caused health disparities and how one’s zip code affects quality of life in my NYU public health and policy courses.
You said you were bitten by the political bug while working at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health (HHS). What was your day to day life working in that office — what did you see there that made you want to pursue a law degree?
What I valued most about being a fellow at HHS was the ability to wear many hats and work on a number of diverse assignments. Though my portfolio mainly consisted of Hispanic/Latinx health research, I was also able to lead the cultural and linguistic competency project, including its sub-contract and deliverables, and co-lead our Open Enrollment Coalition Group, where we worked on Affordable Care Act (ACA) outreach material and engagement strategies. Each day felt new and exciting – from briefing senior leadership on hot button healthcare issues to attending policy meetings and assisting with the review of grant applications.
Collaborating with policy strategists who had both public health and legal backgrounds and seeing the critical gap of Latinx women in the law, it felt like the right next step for me to merge my passions in advocating for diverse populations – understanding the role that health disparities play on access issues — and developing evidence-based policy solutions that take into account the people those policies would affect.
I figured I would be more marketable by obtaining both a JD and an MPH for positions seeking to have individuals work on health and civil rights portfolios, while also understanding the legal process; how to write effective legislation, and ensuring that everyone who needs to be at the table is there and their voice is heard.
Could you tell me about the role of mentors in your life and academic career?
Mentors have been critical to my personal and professional development. They have always been able to find more in me than I saw in myself, particularly when it came to the “what-should-I-do-next” discussion. Whenever I doubted my abilities or was unsure about whether or not to apply for a new job or law school, I relied on my mentors to provide critical feedback and help me weigh pros/cons.
Diana Silver provided me with my very first introduction to the field of public health. Our relationship started with a meeting about class assignments, and then she grew into a confidante who advised me on internships, classes, and eventually pursuing an MPH degree . She now regularly checks in to see how things are going and has even followed-up with various legal research projects and assignments that I started on as a junior in college.
You are a part of the first cohort of paid interns, and the first paid legal fellow in Senator Tammy Duckworth’s Chicago office. How does your background in minority public health access complement the Senator’s health care agenda?
Senator Duckworth has and continues to fight to achieve high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans, and seeks to work across party lines to ensure access. She was recently named the 50 most influential people in health care, particularly with her public health work advocating for breastfeeding accommodations. Senator Duckworth is fighting to guarantee our nation’s most vulnerable citizens receive care regardless of their political views.
I have been able to participate in meetings and advise senior staffers on health care issues facing Illinoisans. I have also lent my perspective on who we should partner with and contact, how to best go about framing an issue, and how the Senator can lend a unique voice and viewpoint. Being in law school, I am able to infuse my knowledge of the law when briefing on current political concerns and determining our office’s next steps. My public health background has also suited me well when discussing specific constituent concerns and how to best move forward in aiding someone’s case. While my work far extends minority public health access, my previous work experiences have ensured that I take holistic approaches to my work.
Is public service as an elected official in your future?
I am definitely not ruling this out, however, at this point in my career, I am enjoying more of the behind the scenes, process and strategy development, researching and legislative drafting kind of roles.
It is a really great feeling working with a team of experts from the very beginning – determining how to foster authentic relationships and build coalitions, ensure all voices are heard and taken into account, and then trying to move the needle to affect policy change. It has always been more about the people than the data to me, so maybe one day.