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Donation Creates Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Fund at the Yale School of Public Health

January 13, 2021
by Colin Poitras

The Yale School of Public Health’s ongoing efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion received a substantial boost recently with a generous donation from Dr. Pilar Vargas and her husband Dean Sten H. Vermund.

The gift, which creates an endowed fund exclusively dedicated to school DEI efforts, is the latest of several contributions Drs. Vargas and Vermund have made to the school since Vermund became dean in 2017.

The fund is named in honor of Dr. Vargas’ parents, Dr. Pedro Vargas and Mrs. Pilar Bodas de Vargas, who believed in the power and potential of education and the importance of equal opportunity for all individuals to increase their knowledge and improve their lives.

“My father, an ophthalmologist, was a lifelong member of the Rotary Club, and he was very interested in one of the club’s core missions, which is to provide scholarships to students to start, continue or complete their studies,” said Pilar Vargas, a retired child psychiatrist and neurobiologist. “Hopefully, with this donation, we can do the same and support students in their studies.”

It was Pilar Vargas’ grandparents, a farm family from Isabela, Puerto Rico, who instilled in the family a deep respect for and interest in education. The eldest son, a pharmacist, and his other brothers helped support Pilar’s father’s passion to study medicine. Pedro Vargas would go on to become the first of what would eventually be a long line of physicians (11 in all) to carry the Vargas family name.

But like many students from underrepresented and underserved populations today, Pedro Vargas’ journey to further his education was full of challenges.

With no medical school in Puerto Rico at the time and unable to afford medical school in the continental United States, Vargas went to Madrid to pursue his medical training, only to have his plans cut short by the Spanish Civil War. Fleeing the civil unrest with classmates, Vargas transferred to Cologne, Germany, and then to Austria, where he completed his medical degree at the University of Vienna in 1939.

Vargas returned to Puerto Rico, where, with the enduring and essential support of his wife, Pilar, he would give back to the greater Arecibo community, providing clinical care to residents in northern Puerto Rico for more than 35 years.

Dr. Pedro Vargas’ impact on the community cannot be understated. Having a local doctor who grew up in the area and who understands local culture and community can have profound effects in building positive doctor-patient relationships, Vermund said. Some of his patients would pay for ophthalmologic services with their own farm products when they had no money, Vargas recalled.

“Being from rural Puerto Rico, Pedro Vargas cared very deeply for the people there and he paid it forward,” said Vermund, a pediatrician, infectious disease epidemiologist and Yale’s Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health. “The cultural synergy between a patient and a professional who serves his or her own community can be very powerful. It all starts with education and opportunity.”

As set forth in the establishing documents, the mission of the new fund is to:

“Ensure that the (Yale School of Public Health) is a place where students, faculty, and staff are free to explore the breadth of their intellectual curiosity, the depth of their humanity and the potential of their scholarship, research, work and practice. Activities (supported by the fund) should engage the school and broader community around addressing health inequities and challenges to inclusion at Yale and in society; facilitate the exchange of ideas across ideological, political or other differences; and/or celebrate examples of excellence and achievement.”

Vermund said the structure of the fund is deliberately open-ended to allow flexibility in supporting a broad range of efforts related to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. He hopes news of the fund will encourage others — such as Yale School of Public Health alumni, current students and school supporters — to contribute and help it grow.

Vermund has partnered with the faculty to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a core pillar of the school, building on the prior work of many contributors. In 2019, he appointed Associate Professor Mayur Desai, M.P.H. ’94, Ph.D. ’97, as the school’s inaugural associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Desai, who will administer the new fund, has fully embraced his new deanship and is working diligently to promote DEI through a variety of new initiatives. These include supporting memberships in the National Association of Health Services Executives for students of color, hiring Leigh Roberts as the new DEI Program Administrator, and reviewing the staff hiring process to achieve greater diversity.

Other YSPH initiatives include new Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences faculty in the academic field of racism and health, spearheaded by Department Chair and Professor Trace Kershaw; a new social justice curriculum concentration, directed by Associate Professor Danya Keene, and deeper engagement of alumni (Emerging Majority Affairs Committee) and students (Emerging Majority Student Association) in guiding the school in its DEI efforts.

“I know I speak on behalf of the entire YSPH community in thanking Dr. Vargas and Dean Vermund for their generosity and support of DEI activities at YSPH,” said Desai. “Over time, I hope the fund can grow to support a variety of purposes, including supporting public health student internships focused on addressing health inequities, hosting diverse scholars and practitioners who are leading experts in their fields, and holding trainings and events aimed at engaging the YSPH community in difficult conversations around implicit bias and systemic racism. I also thank those prior donors who have highlighted the needs of underrepresented students at YSPH.”

Vermund cited several existing YSPH student scholarships advancing diversity, equity and inclusion as inspiration for the new DEI fund. Those gifts by YSPH alumni and friends of the school (a partial list is provided below) represent only some of the school scholarships available to students:

  • Creed/Patton/Steele Scholarship Fund – Established by Dr. Robert E. Steele (M.P.H. ’71, Ph.D. ’75) and Professor Curtis Patton, with generous support provided by Dr. Clarion E. Johnson (YSM ’76).
  • Salovey & Moret Scholarship Fund – Established by Marta E. Moret (M.P.H. ’84) and her husband, Yale President Peter Salovey.
  • LGBTQ Health/Stigma/Disparities Fund – Established by Dr. David R. Kessler (M.D. ’55).
  • Anderson Alumni Scholarship Fund – Established by Elaine Anderson (M.P.H. ’76) and a number of other alumni.
  • Cornell Scott Scholarship Fund – Established by Cornell Scott (YSPH ’68).

Anyone interested in contributing to the new endowed DEI fund or any of the scholarships supporting diverse students at YSPH should contact Senior Director of Development and Alumni Affairs Connie Evans at cornelia.evans@yale.edu.

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on January 13, 2021