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Gillings Minority Student Caucus prepares to host 44th annual Minority Health Conference

UNC Gillings School of Public Health is pictured on Sept. 23, 2022.

For over four decades, the UNC Minority Health Conference  – the largest and longest-running student-led health conference in the country – has covered issues of inequity in the medical field. 

On Friday, Feb. 24, the conference returns with this year’s theme: “Practicing Health as a Human Right: Policy, Ethics, and the Law" at the Friday Center.

The event brings together researchers, students, advocates and community members to discuss relevant health issues and find ways to improve access for people who experience inequities when receiving health care. 

The conference is sponsored by the Gillings School for Global Public Health Minority Student Caucus with the help of faculty advisors.

“None of us have to be here. None of us are getting paid,” Rhea Jayaswal, co-chairperson of MHC, said. “We just really care about health equity.”

Geni Eng, a retired professor of health behavior at Gillings, served on the student planning committee for the first conference when she was a master’s student and a member of the Minority Student Caucus. 

Eng said she has attended the MHC almost every year since. 

“I always come away from the conference, and I think everybody does, totally inspired to have hope, and also to see how the young minds and the future workforce are creative and looking for alternatives,” she said. 

Jayaswal said this year’s theme addresses how health care is not always treated as a human right. She also said the theme was inspired by current events such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade and COVID-19 vaccine distribution inequity. 

“We really wanted a theme that focused on how we can use policy and law and human rights to improve health and improve health access for people who experience health inequities,” Jayaswal said.

This year’s event is the first in the conference’s history to be held in a hybrid format, Co-chairperson of MHC Callia Cox said. The conference was held virtually in 2021 and 2022, but this year’s attendees will have the option to attend in-person or online. 

The conference will start at 9:00 a.m., with a keynote speaker and accompanying Q&A session followed by smaller breakout sessions in both the morning and the afternoon.

In-person attendees will also have the opportunity to create and present research posters and view exhibits from Triangle-area organizations involved in public health, research and health equity. 

This year’s first keynote speaker is Cynthia Greenlee, a historian and journalist based in North Carolina. In her lecture, Greenlee will explore the history of abortion access in the state prior to the Roe v. Wade decision. 

“This is going to help us understand, in this post-Roe v. Wade era, how that could look, what the implications are going to be for women, girls, birthing people of color, especially," Jayaswal said. "And how racism has always played a role in who had access to abortion."

The second keynote speaker is Matiangai Sirleaf, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. She will be lecturing on European imperial expansion and the role of racism and colonization in global public health law.

“This type of information is priceless,” Cox said. “It’s invaluable to hear subject experts talk on their subjects of expertise. This is not just your classroom lecture. This is not just an assignment.”

Eng said she is very proud of how the conference has grown and evolved throughout the years and its consistent focus on student leadership and community organizing. 

The conference is currently expecting around 500 in-person attendees from across academic disciplines and backgrounds.  

“The thing about health equity and racial equity is that it’s not a simple solution or a simple problem,” Jayaswal said. “We need people from all these different backgrounds working on this issue, and I love that the conference gets to bring together all these amazing people to share their work and share their knowledge.” 


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Emi Maerz

Emi Maerz is a 2023-24 assistant lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously covered UNC for the university desk. Emi is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and dramatic art.