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A World of Difference

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“Instead of heading a study of 100 or 1,000 people, I will have the potential to affect millions in a positive way.” -Stephanie Ly

IN SEPTEMBER OF 2015, 193 DISPARATE NATIONS AGREED on a remarkable set of aspirations for the global community. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established an ambitious agenda to tackle the world’s most formidable problems — eliminating poverty and hunger, ensuring equal opportunity and protection against discrimination, promoting universal education and health care, and protecting the planet against climate change and other environmental threats.

“Together, these social and environmental factors account for the major reasons people get sick, and the inequalities in who gets sick and dies,” says Dr. Jody Heymann, dean of the Fielding School and director of the FSPH-based WORLD Policy and Analysis Center (WORLD), the largest quantitative center capturing data on the actions governments take to advance social, economic, and environmental well-being for the 193 United Nations member countries. “If we want to truly make a difference in the health of the world’s population, we must address these core issues.” 

But as extraordinary as it was for the U.N. member countries to unanimously agree on goals that would alter the life trajectory of the world’s most disadvantaged populations, now comes the hard part.

Over the next 15 years, trillions of dollars and millions of human hours will be invested to achieve the 17 goals, each of which establishes specific targets to be reached by 2030. The impact of these investments will depend on how the funding and effort are expended, but few programs are focused on training the next generation of leaders to address the human development, health, economic, and environmental needs at the heart of the SDGs.

With a $5.44 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, UCLA has begun to do just that. The Hilton Scholars Program brings together faculty mentors from across the UCLA campus to equip future lawyers, educators, business leaders, engineers, public policy experts, public health professionals, and others with the expertise and leadership skills that will enable them to contribute to accelerating poverty reduction, advancing equal opportunity and achieving the SDGs.

The initiative includes hands-on training for postdoctoral and doctoral fellows who will develop an evidence base that can be shared with public and private sector leaders on the best ways to effect change, along with a program for master’s and professional students who will be prepared through coursework and international field experiences to implement programs on the ground. Hilton Scholars from across the UCLA campus will be trained at WORLD — a unique resource for researchers, policymakers and the general populations of more than 200 nations and territories for its ability to link more than 1,500 aspects of policies with outcomes, and to shed light on what different countries are doing through comparative data. 

Among the first group of Hilton Scholars is Stephanie Ly, a third-year doctoral student in FSPH’s Department of Community Health Sciences who hopes to play an important role in the effort to eradicate global poverty through work with a major intergovernmental organization. Her dissertation research will focus on global childhood malnutrition and stunting — a consequence of undernutrition that affects one-fourth of children in the world’s poorest countries, with lifelong health consequences.

Ly has experience in the nonprofit world, having managed an international study spanning nine countries that investigated birth defects in children. But through her training at WORLD, she foresees making an even larger impact by pointing the way toward evidence-based antipoverty measures. “Instead of heading a study of 100 or 1,000 people, I will have the potential to affect millions in a positive way,” she says.

Feliz Quiñones, a fifth-year doctoral student in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, intends to use her Hilton Scholar training to gain greater insight into educational policies and the quality of education around the world. In her dissertation research, Quiñones studies how neighborhood and school contexts influence middle and high school students’ experiences with racial and ethnic discrimination in Los Angeles.

“It’s been a great experience to begin to think about the issues I care about on an international scale and through a policy lens,” Quiñones says. “In my own research looking at students’ experiences with discrimination at schools and in their neighborhood, it’s important to recognize that these experiences are not isolated. They are greatly affected by the policies that are in place.”

Quiñones was especially attracted to the program by the prospect of collaborating with experts in other fields as a way of seeing educational issues in a new light. As a Hilton Scholar, Quiñones has begun developing WORLD’s workplace discrimination database, looking at the extent to which social identities are protected under labor codes across countries. In the future, she hopes to take advantage of WORLD’s data to learn more about differences in access to education among low-, middle- and high-income countries.

Worldwide, more than a billion people live in extreme poverty. Approximately 700 million children suffer from at least two forms of deprivation, including lack of adequate food, safe drinking water, decent sanitation facilities, health, shelter, and education. Making substantial progress toward achieving the SDGs would transform the lives of hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable and marginalized people of every nation – although Ly, who teaches an undergraduate course in international health, acknowledges that it won’t be easy.

“When I talk about the SDGs with my students, they often say, ‘Sure, these are great, lofty goals, but are they realistic? Can we really end poverty and climate change?’ ” Ly says. “What we are doing at WORLD — measuring the policies of various countries and the impact they are having — allows us to set achievable milestones. It’s a step in the right direction, and I am excited to be part of that.”