Tuesday Talk… with Tiffany Huang

Tiffany Huang is a 2006 HHS alumna. She was a four-year member of HHS Debate and led our delegation as head ambassador at the Berlin Model United Nations in Germany. She was also a student in two of my classes and was — and is — undeniably brilliant. When I become president of the United States she will be my choice to head the other HHS, Health and Human Services.

Was your entire childhood in Hillsborough?

Yes. We moved there when I was about one.

How would you describe your experience at Hillsborough High School?

I spent a long time thinking about how to answer this question. Looking back, I think high school was both better and worse than my experience of it at the time. Better, because it was a relatively privileged place to be, which I didn’t always recognize at the time. It was a good school in a good district with good teachers and sufficient resources. And I didn’t have much to worry about aside from doing well in school. On the other hand, growing up in Hillsborough also meant growing up steeped in whiteness, which I also didn’t recognize at the time. Incidents that we would today easily recognize as microaggressions (frequent), stereotyping (extremely frequent), or outright racism (rare, but non-zero) didn’t even register to me as problematic until years later. In some ways, my naïveté protected me, in that I still had what I consider to be a decent social experience, and friendships I valued deeply. In other ways, it definitely affected the person I’ve become. 

What do you remember liking or not liking about your social studies classes?

I mostly remember liking them. I found the material interesting and was good at the kinds of things we were asked to do. My qualms with the social studies curriculum arose long after high school, as I’ve come to realize how white- and Eurocentric it was (see also my response to the previous question). I admit to being fuzzy on the details, but I feel like my overall takeaways involved valorizing pilgrims and “pioneers” instead of thinking critically about the genocide of indigenous peoples, American imperialism, or racism in the north. It feels like we covered the Revolutionary War every other year from elementary school onward, but very little, for example, about American involvement in wars in Latin America and Southeast Asia. But this is less a criticism about my specific classes and more about social studies education in the U.S. 

What, if any, lasting impact did involvement in HHS Debate have on you?

HHS Debate had a large influence over my high school experience, most of it positive. It sparked my interest in current events and public policy, which led me to study health policy in college and grad school (the first go-around). I learned how to craft and articulate an argument, speak confidently in front of an audience, and think on my feet when responding to questions, skills that have been invaluable in academia. It also gave me a social “home,” so to speak, where I made great friends and bonded over shared experiences.  

Other than the reputation and incredible weather, what drew you to the University of California at Berkeley?

Mostly that it was very far from New Jersey (I kid… or do I?). Actually, I fell in love with San Francisco when we went on a Model Congress trip during my junior year, and it piqued my interest in going to California for school. I didn’t visit the campus before committing to attend, but I hoped that it was big enough that I’d be able to find whatever it was I was looking for. It worked out well in that respect. (Sadly, it turns out Bay Area weather is actually pretty mediocre for most of the year.) 

Blasphemy. I’ll take that weather in a heartbeat! What drew you to public health as a field of study?

I had no idea that “public health” was a thing until one evening at the end of freshman year, when I was scrolling through my college’s list of majors. When I read the description, it made perfect sense. In Debate, I had always been drawn to social policy issues like universal health care and infectious diseases. The major was broken down into concentrations, such as epidemiology, biostatistics, and health policy. Health policy was right up my alley. 

For the layperson (me!), can you provide a quick overview of what types of issues are covered by this area of public policy?

Health policy – and public health in general – is incredibly broad. A great deal of health policy  focuses on how health care is delivered and paid for, and that was a large part of my coursework. But the key elements of public health are that its prevention-focused (vs. treatment-focused) and population-focused (vs. individual-focused). To that end, I also took classes that covered topics like tobacco policy, food and nutrition, reproductive health policy, and environmental policy. 

Although our discourse around health in the U.S. tends to focus on access to medical care and health care insurance, it turns out that much of what determines people’s health outcomes are non-medical factors, like the built environment, access to healthy foods, housing segregation, employment, and racism. These factors are collectively known by the (terribly jargon-y) phrase “social determinants of health.” What kind of crops does the federal government subsidize? (Mostly corn and soy, not so much fruits and vegetables.) Are neighborhoods and cities built so that people can safely engage in physical activity, and so that people have access to affordable public transit or walking and biking trails, rather than relying on cars? Do tenants have the right — and the means — to go after their landlords for unsafe housing conditions that lead to conditions like asthma? It’s a much broader way of conceptualizing “health” than we tend to think of. 

(Caveat: a huge focus of health policy remains health care policy, which makes sense, since health care spending sucks up a huge proportion of our nation’s GDP. But by ignoring the role of social determinants of health, we’re not getting very good bang for our buck.)

Why did you also choose to study French? How was your semester abroad?

Purely for fun. I took French in high school and continued to do so in college. After studying abroad, I realized I was accumulating enough credits that I could add it as a second major. I’ve always liked languages and linguistics.

Studying abroad was such a great experience. The university we were at actually went on strike for three months that semester (very French of them). But just being there made my French improve by leaps and bounds. (Also, I ate a lot of really delicious bread and cheese.)

After college, you worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for two years. What did you work on and how did you enjoy your experience?

I was in CDC’s Public Health Association Program (PHAP), which placed fellows in two-year positions at state and local health departments across the U.S. I was at the state health department in Michigan, where I worked in environmental health. I spent the first year working for a housing-based asthma program for low- and very low-income families in the Lansing area, and the second year conducting environmental lead investigations for childhood lead poisoning cases throughout the state. Working with families was valuable and rewarding, though it could also be emotionally challenging. But PHAP overall was a wonderful opportunity, and I learned so much from it — and met a lot of really wonderful people. 

You left after a couple of years to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan, again with the focus on public health. Did you know what you planned to do with a master’s degree in the field?

When I was a senior in college looking for jobs, I realized that many positions in public health required an MPH. Of course, it turned out that your odds of getting into a good MPH program were higher if you had job experience — and I also wasn’t ready to stay in school for another two years at that point. So it was always my intent to work for a couple years and then go back for an MPH so I could continue to advance. After working with families, I realized that my true interest was in trying to effect change on a more macro level, so I went back for health policy. 

Your next professional stint was at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. What issues did you get to work on with the organization with the greatest acronym of all time?

The organization’s goal was to support local health departments in their work. I worked on issues related to health equity and performance improvement, thinking about how health departments can meaningfully incorporate health equity into their strategic priorities and planning. (Alas, I regret to inform you that it’s pronounced “neigh-cho”, not “nacho”.)

Well, that’s just silly. The marketing possibilities alone!

One of the major themes of AP US Government and Politics course is federalism. Can you talk a little bit about how the varying levels of government interact (for better or worse) in the area of public health?

It’s complicated! So much of actual public health work is done at a local level. But local health departments rely not only on local funding, but state and federal funding (both direct grants and pass-through dollars). And then of course, there’s the stuff that’s paid for by Medicare (federal) and Medicaid (federal and state). And regulations at all levels. 

You left NACCHO and are now going for your PhD at Columbia University. What is your focus and what do you plan do with that degree?

I study race and immigration, focusing primarily on the outcomes of the second-generation children of immigrants. I’ve done some work on Asian Americans’ labor market outcomes and the workplace experiences of both immigrants and the U.S.-born second-generation. I’m also interested in how racial and ethnic minority groups relate to one another, and am currently working on a project about Asian Americans’ experiences of discrimination and their attitudes toward Black and Hispanic Americans. My dissertation research is about identity and the college application process — but I’m in the midst of data collection, so I can’t say any more yet! Come back to me in two years.

For the moment, I’m aiming to stay in academia. I have so many research questions I’d like to answer, and I’m not sure any other job would give me the kind of latitude and resources I’d need to answer them. But given the realities of the academic job market, and my prior work experience, I am also keeping my mind open to other possibilities. 

You’ve lived in France, Berkeley, California, Michigan, Washington, DC, New York City… why is Hillsborough, New Jersey vastly superior to all those lousy locations? (But seriously, what’s been your favorite place to live?)

I’ve liked (or learned something from) all the places I’ve lived, but my favorite place so far is New York. I actually never envisioned living here until I came for my PhD — despite growing up nearby and visiting regularly — but it’s been great.

You’ve been doing some teaching and mentoring at Columbia. How do you like it? What, if any, perspective does it give you on previous education that you’ve received?

I really enjoy it! I especially enjoy working one-on-one with students to develop their ideas and projects, crafting a good lecture, and experimenting in the classroom to see what works and what doesn’t. I also learn a lot from my students, who are mostly very bright and very motivated. Although Columbia has a substantial number of students from privileged and elite backgrounds, my classrooms are generally more diverse (both racially and socioeconomically) than the ones I grew up in, which is refreshing.

Earlier this year you co-wrote an article titled “Revisiting the Asian second-generation advantage” for a journal called Ethnic and Racial Studies. This would be an interesting subject matter to me, regardless, but in the time you’ve been out of Hillsborough, the Asian population (particularly South Asian) has increased to something like 27 percent of the school. Can you take me through the findings of this research?

We use national data to examine education and labor market outcomes for the second-generation children of five Asian immigrant groups — Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Koreans. Prior research finds that second-generation Asian Americans achieve exceptionally highly in education, in part because of hyperselectivity — that is, their immigrant parents are more likely to have college educations compared with both U.S.-born Americans and to their non-migrant counterparts in their home countries. (This is in contrast to cultural arguments that Asian parents simply push their children harder.)

We find that all five second-generation groups achieve exceptionally highly in education, but not all groups show intergenerational mobility. Second-generation Vietnamese, Chinese, and Koreans do show intergenerational mobility, while second-generation Indians and Filipinos do not. When it comes to labor market outcomes, second-generation Asian Americans, except for Chinese, are no more likely to be in professional or managerial occupations, compared with their white counterparts, when taking education into account. This finding suggests that the Asian second-generation “advantage” is confined to education and does not translate into exceptional labor market outcomes. 

I am imbuing you with superpowers and a magic wand. What is the one law or governmental policy related to your field of study that you would change, and why?

This is a hard question, because I see most of the problems plaguing the U.S. as systemic and interrelated. But to choose something tangentially related to my work, and that I see as a pressing immediate need, I would probably end the humanitarian crisis at our borders. 

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