Jahana Hayes recently spoke to a group of graduate students as part of a law and public health class, sharing her own educational journey and praising students for entering the field of public health during a challenging and critical time.
March 11, 2022
Pooja Sanghani ’23 MPH was excited to listen to U.S. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes speak to her law and public health class. She enjoyed hearing her story and learning more about Rep. Hayes’s work as an educator and a legislator.
Rep. Hayes, an internationally recognized educator who represents Connecticut’s 5th District, recently spoke to Sanghani and her classmates via Zoom, and Sanghani said hearing her speak was “quite motivating.
“Congresswoman Hayes's story is one of triumph over adversity and of conquering the challenges that life may throw at you,” said Sanghani. “She is trying to ensure that every constituent in Connecticut's 5th Congressional District is heard. A brighter future is conceivable with everyone engaging in the discourse.”
‘The voice of people who don’t have a voice’
Rep. Hayes began the conversation by sharing the latest updates on the war in Ukraine, which she described as an “extremely dangerous situation.” She also discussed the importance of diverse perspectives in government when making decisions – particularly with regard to situations such as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Rep. Hayes told students that her background informs the way she legislates. A former teacher in her hometown of Waterbury, Conn., who still identifies herself as an educator, Rep. Hayes was recognized as Connecticut’s Teacher of the Year, then was named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.
Sharing her own story of growing up in public housing, Rep. Hayes told students how, despite being a good student, she dropped out of high school. She’d always wanted to be a teacher, and she eventually continued her education, which included earning a master’s degree.
After traveling across the country and around the world as an ambassador for public education, Rep. Hayes says she felt a sense of responsibility to use her platform to be a voice for her students. She then ran for a seat in Congress, and, when she was elected, she became the first African-American woman and the first African-American democrat to ever represent the state of Connecticut.
“She was inspiring because she was able to overcome all the stereotypes of being a teenage mom growing up in the inner city of Waterbury as she went on to become an educator and now a congresswoman,” said Panagiota Zorgias ’22 MPH. “I think she exemplifies that, if you put your mind to it and work hard, you can achieve whatever you dream of.”
When voting, Rep. Hayes says she considers how her vote could impact the lives of students, who have “guided her and grounded her” the entire time she has been a member of Congress.
“I’m what happens when government works,” she said. “I’m someone who grew up in public housing and went to a community college but who worked really hard, built a solid foundation, and became a giver in my community. Everyone has the potential to do that. Our job as legislators is to be the voice of people who don’t have a voice and to create opportunities for all people to thrive.”
‘No matter what obstacles life throws your way, you can succeed’
Rep. Hayes is among several leaders – including Connecticut Attorney General William Tong and Maritza Bond, health director for the city of New Haven – who have spoken to the class, taught by Audrey Blondin, JD, MPH.
“It was wonderful and so inspiring to have Congresswoman Hayes speak to my students,” said Dr. Blondin, an attorney with many years of political experience. “She truly shows what the value and importance of getting a good education can be for your future, no matter what challenges you may need to overcome in order to be successful. She serves as an important role model for all of us, and especially for my students who are just beginning their careers as future leaders in the field of public health.”
COVID-19 was an important part of the conversation, as Rep. Hayes discussed the public health lessons learned throughout the pandemic. She explored the impact COVID has had on minority communities, as well as how it has affected legislation and government decision making. She also praised the students for entering the field during a “scary time” for public health.
“The pandemic has taught people the importance of public health,” she said. “You’re not just making decisions for you and your family – you are making them for the community at large. It’s important work, and everyone has a role to play – not just in preventing public health crises from happening again, but in recovering from the trauma.”
“As a public health student, I enjoyed listening to her encouraging words to us and her discussion about how useful our education would be to our community,” explained Mabintou Darboe ’22 MPH. “I was captivated by her knowledge of the social determinants of health and the barriers they cause in improving the health of communities. Her success and earlier struggles in life show that no matter what obstacles life throws your way, you can succeed.”