Vincent Jappah spent much of his childhood in Liberia sheltered in camps for the internally displaced as rival warlords battled for power of the West African nation. His post-primary school years were disrupted when forced to flee to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Yet Jappah persevered, as education was at the core of his family values. His mother was a teacher; his father was former principal of the Booker Washington Institute and the former director of Liberia's two main teaching colleges — though he and one of Jappah’s little sisters would lose their lives to war.
“These experiences formed the foundation of my commitment to high quality and affordable education for all — particularly for those living at the margins of society,” said Jappah. “Education not only enlightens an individual, but it also fundamentally transforms a person’s social conditions while bestowing agency and dignity.”
Once out of secondary school, he applied for scholarships around the world — landing in Moscow without knowing a word of Russian and among people whose culture could not be more different than his own. He would go on to get his MD from the People’s Friendship University of Russia, an MS in health policy and economics from Cornell University, an MSc in global health and development from University College London, and an MPH from New York University.
Today, he is working toward his PhD at Stanford Health Policy and is a member of the Health Policy Data Science Lab. With an academic CV like that, Jappah is proof that education can lift children from poverty and conflict and give them a path toward success.
In a study published in the journal Africa Today by Indiana University Press, Jappah and his co-author Danielle Taana Smith, a professor of African American Studies at Syracuse University, argue for investment in teacher training programs in Liberia as a means to invest in human development. Although 14 years of civil war came to an end in 2003 — killing some 250,000 people — the collateral damage and psychological scars remain entrenched in Liberia.
“Against competing national development priorities, rebuilding the country’s education system remains a challenge,” the two scholars write. “We highlight linkages between education and human well-being, including accrued health dividends, improved living standards, gender equity, civil participation, and efficient labor participation.”
I asked Jappah about this recent thread of research, as well as what motivated him as a child and still pushes him forward today.
Tell us more about the study in Africa Today. How can teacher training programs contribute to human development in Liberia?
The study identifies the need for the equitable distribution of educational opportunities not only as a way of empowering all persons, irrespective of social and economic background, but also as a human right. Many young people are marginalized in post-conflict societies because of their social and economic conditions. The study highlights efforts made by local civic society organizations and by international institutions to ensure that the right to a basic education is not compromised. My colleagues and I are working on several development projects that seek to improve the lives of vulnerable populations.
What influenced your decision to go to medical school?
As an adolescent during civil war, I hoped to attain an education beyond my circumstances. My mother played a pivotal role in motivating me. While I was living in a refugee camp in Ghana, she wrote me countless letters from Liberia imploring me to seek out educational opportunities. I applied for scholarships around the world and was fortunate to receive a scholarship to study in Moscow.
What was it like to study and learn in Russian?
My earliest encounter with Russia was through the book, “The Man from St. Petersburg” by Ken Follett. I also grew up listening to my mother and her friends discussing Cold War politics between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I vaguely remember their talk of a meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. I could not have imagined that I would one day sit in the front row of a university auditorium as Gorbachev lectured on international politics and his role in leading the Soviet Union. In his talk, he discussed the richness of American culture. I was fascinated by his talk and did what I would never have imagined in my wildest dream: I asked him a question in his native language and fully understood his complex response.
Overall, I found Russians to be decent and hard-working people. I was impressed by the high level of female empowerment. Most of my professors were women who occupied key roles such as department chairs, chemists, bioengineers, physicists and surgeons. As a medical student and later as a young resident doctor, I was at times intimidated by my patients’ immense medical knowledge. Some would challenge my treatment plans and ask for justification for every step in clinical management. At times, I wondered during clinical clerkships if every patient was a retired physician.
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves. Did you grow up feeling a connection to the United States?
In many ways, the U.S. reminds me of Liberia — a country where the formerly enslaved in the U.S. and other parts of the world found refuge. My mother is a descendant of formerly enslaved people from the United States and my father descends from indigenous Africans and West Indians who migrated to Liberia in search of liberty.
In Rochester, NY, my adopted home, I was excited to work with children in an after-school program, many of whom looked like me and reminded me of my childhood in Liberia. I was on leave from my clinical residency in pediatrics in Moscow and found a job at a day-care center in Rochester, where I earned $7.25 per hour. I had not seen many Black kids for so long during my time in Russia, and I was excited to take a break from the exhausting hospital work to work with healthy kids. They reminded me of my siblings as we grew up in Liberia. In fact, I found books on the shelves at the daycare center that I had also read when I was a kid.
The kids enrolled in the after-school program challenged me physically and mentally. I still recall a conversation with 8-year-old Lorenzo. When we met, he asked me, “Where are you from and what do you do?” I responded that I was a physician and that I would return to Moscow to complete my residency. He was adamant as he declared that I was an imposter and a liar. I wondered if perhaps I looked too young to be a doctor. Lorenzo insisted, “You are not a doctor! There are no Black doctors — you cannot be a doctor!” It was disheartening to hear this from a child, especially during his impressionable formative years. I have imagined Lorenzo growing up and aspiring to become a physician, because he knows that someone like him, perhaps an uncle or aunt, a cousin or family friend, can be a physician. However, people with higher education, money and power typically do not live in neighborhoods like Lorenzo’s, and in many instances do not look like him. I hope that as a society, we think hard about these structural issues and find the means to address them.
What motivated you to focus on health policy and medicine, particularly among underserved and vulnerable populations?
Before coming to Stanford, I lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, across the street from the historic low-income housing complex Weeksville Village. In 1838, following the abolition of slavery in New York State, the community was founded by people who had been enslaved. The neighborhood remains poverty-stricken, and its residents are primarily African American, Hispanic, and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed the impact of generational exclusion and the resulting structural issues it generates in this neighborhood.
Through my window, I witnessed two murders in the summer of 2020. One victim was a young boy about 16 years old. The second victim was also an adolescent who had run down the street to hide in the nearby elementary school playground before he was gunned down. Later, I watched as a mother and sister washed away the blood of their son and brother from the sidewalk, as other people walked by. I frequently wonder how children who survive the poverty and violence of the neighborhood will grow up and have full lives, and how their life chances could have been immeasurably improved by simply being born and brought up in a different neighborhood with adequate resources available to them.
Based on these and my own my childhood experiences in a similar setting of deprivation and violence, I am interested in formulating research questions that address these issues. My interest in health policy began when I lived in displaced persons and refugee camps.
You were in the United States when COVID-19 evolved into a pandemic and social unrest gripped the nation after the murder of George Floyd. What lessons have you learned from these unprecedented times?
Living in New York City in early 2020 — unlike my childhood experiences in Liberia where I escaped the threats of civil war and found relative safety in refugee camps in neighboring countries — I watched as the country’s security unraveled with the emerging COVID-19 virus and the social uprisings in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
The graphic images broadcast from media outlets showing the violent death of Mr. Floyd haunted me. I could not fathom the absence of empathy and the insanity that drove the police officer to perpetrate such an act of savagery. As I took part in social justice protests, I remained saturated with pain, as I had felt during my childhood.
America has come a long way from the time of my forebears. However, we must acknowledge that more needs to be done to ensure that all members of our society have an equal chance to flourish. We must address the blight of violence, especially in marginalized communities.
Yet I am optimistic that we can forge a path toward human dignity in how we treat one another. I have lived in different countries around the world, including in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. I find that core values are commonly shared among people, and that intrinsically we all want the best for our families, neighbors and communities. This was true of people I met, whether in Kathmandu in Nepal, Freetown in Sierra Leone, Moscow, or New York City. Despite spasms of violence, I have seen the common thread of human decency among the vast majority of people I have met.
Why did you choose Stanford Health Policy as the place to further your research?
My research is shaped by my lived experiences. This is why I am interested in understanding causes of medical and social suffering and finding solutions to alleviate and eradicate them. Stanford provides immense opportunities for research and scholarship. The faculty in the Department of Health Policy are at the forefront of research and teaching, and I am excited to be able to learn from them and engage in my own research.
At Stanford, I am enrolled in core classes in the School of Law, the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Business, and the Department of Economics in the School of Humanities and Sciences. I am surrounded by a pool of extraordinarily talented scholars. This quarter for example, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and afternoons, I am taught by Nobel Prize laureates in Economic Sciences: econometrics by Guido Imbens (2021 Nobel) and microeconomics with Robert Wilson (2020 Nobel). During the winter quarter, I took a class from the Department of Health Policy Chair Doug Owens on the analysis of cost, risks and benefits of health care. Owens and his colleagues engage in groundbreaking research which informs teaching and national policies.
What are your chief career goals?
My upbringing made me more aware of the plights of others and propelled me to pursue goals that are larger than my own. COVID-19 has shown us that an emic perspective is essential not only in decision-making processes and addressing systems-level failures, but also for generating research questions and data-driven contextual hypotheses. As a global citizen, I would like to engage in pragmatic, cutting-edge research in real-world settings, to help fill critical evidence gaps and decisional dilemmas and to position myself to teach the next generation of scholars and health-related practitioners. I also do hope to work in developing countries. My work and research are guided by an abiding commitment to health equity and alleviating human suffering.