Graduation Date: 2018, 2019
Progressive Degree in Master of Public Health (2019)
Kayla Tilton, MPH, an industrious and versatile recent USC alumna, has been recognized as one of the youngest honorees of this year’s de Beaumont Foundation’s 40 Under 40 in Public Health. The Foundation acknowledges creative leaders strengthening communities nationwide. “I am honored to be recognized and it came as a pleasant surprise given my professional experiences aren’t traditional public health roles,” expresses Tilton, who also serves on the Alumni Council for the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences. “After just over three years in the workforce, it’s validating to know the work I am doing is making a difference—I can see that I’m making a meaningful impact and it’s encouraging that young leaders are increasingly being recognized.”
What inspired you to pursue a career in population and public health sciences?
In high school, I fulfilled a capstone graduation requirement by delving into reproductive and sexual health issues in my hometown, Honolulu, Hawaii. My focus was on teenagers without access to sexual health education and resources. I created community kits available at local clinics, offering tools for protection and health education. This project ignited my passion for public health, particularly after uncovering the extent of disparities. USC’s Health Promotion and Disease Prevention program stood out as the perfect place for me.
What was your most impactful educational experience in our department?
During my master’s program, we visited Sacramento for a crash course in health policymaking. This motivated me to pursue experience in government and public affairs to connect my public health knowledge with legislation and stakeholders for broad impact. My professor, Dr. Jane Steinberg, connected me with the County and I developed a capstone project collaborating with the LA County Board of Supervisors Second District office, focusing on mental health access in South Los Angeles. I conducted site visits, engaged with the community, and participated in meetings with government officials. I completed a SWOT analysis highlighting the area’s high prevalence of severe mental illness, inequities linked to social determinants of health, and limited resources in the district. I presented evidence-based recommendations to the County Supervisor to address these disparities.
Even today, I still feel supported as a USC alumna. You can lean on this community and your mentors are so valuable. Dr. Steinberg has shown me unwavering support when I was a student and still does to this day.
How did you end up working for the government?
After graduating from my MPH, I embarked on a fellowship with Coro Southern California, a public affairs leadership organization. This experience showed me the importance of learning how to wear the public health hat across different organizations and sectors, and that a coordinated approach is required to address public health and equity issues. Many people do not understand the public health lens, so it’s important we have people with public health backgrounds across sectors who are not primarily focused on that. Moreover, public health extends far beyond the CDC and public health departments.
My fellowship amplified my government-related experience and practical knowledge in effecting large-scale change. After graduating from the fellowship, I began working for elected office at the LA County Board of Supervisors where I had a hand in both legislation and communications. Nearly all my work involved public health having entered this role a few months after the onset of the pandemic.
Where do you currently work and what are your main responsibilities?
I’m an Account Supervisor at Fraser Communications, a marketing and communications agency. I provide strategic counsel to and manage campaigns particularly focused on underserved communities and connecting them to resources. We are currently working with the LA County Department of Health on a vaccination campaign. In this new era of the pandemic, we grapple with questions such as ‘how are we making sure that seniors and pregnant people are aware of vaccination routines?’ and ‘how do we develop compelling messaging for people to get their recommended vaccines after years of pandemic fatigue?’ A large part of my job is creating campaigns that meet communities where they are. It’s crucial that our messaging and media are culturally sensitive, relevant, and mindful of the target audience.
My past experience with local government provided insights into the public sector and health agencies which helps to inform my successful campaigns today. The collaboration between our private advertising agency and government entities strengthens our collective efforts and emphasizes the need to work together.
What is your favorite part about your job?
It’s seeing the measurable impact. We can measure the number of impressions and people we reach with campaigns and how many people enroll in equity-focused programs. We’re intentional about the work we do and make sure that our campaigns are creative, emotional and resonate with the target audience. There’s also a sense of fulfillment in spotting our work out in the community, such as on billboards.
What advice do you have for students who may want to follow a similar career path to yours?
Don’t put yourself in a box. I would never have pursued the fellowship at Coro Southern California or worked for local government if I had a specific public health job in mind. Be open! Just because the role doesn’t have a “public health” related title, doesn’t mean you are not doing public health work. Don’t let a job deter you if it’s not checking all your boxes. I’m glad what I pursued did not check my boxes back then because ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ I’m glad that I took the chance on opportunities that resonated with me. There was some level of intuition, and my pursuit of opportunities was a calculated risk that I had the courage to take.
What advice do you have for students who want to work for government?
I encourage them to apply to an elected office or to different departments beyond health departments—where you can still do public health work but through a different lens. For instance, the Department of Recreation and Parks touches on public health to make sure there are equitable green spaces and programming for youth in every community in Los Angeles.
If you decide to work for elected office, make sure the member’s values and policy agenda aligns with the work you want to do. There are so many opportunities–you just have to seek them out and be open to exploring non-traditional avenues.