Lola Riggs

lolariggs Lola Riggs, Navajo, is currently Senior Manager for the Northern Region of Coconino County Health Department, which is based in Page, Arizona. Riggs oversees the operation of the health services serving Page and surrounding areas including the Navajo Reservation, Fredonia, Colorado City, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. When the following article was published, Riggs was a member of the senior staff of the Family Spirit Project, which was conducted as a partnership between the Navajo Nation, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Building a Career in Public Health


Beginning Work in Public Health


Riggs first worked for Johns Hopkins University from 1987 to 1993 when she served as a field worker for the Hib study conducted by Dr. Ray Reid and others. After one phase of that study was over, Riggs says that the Johns Hopkins staff urged her to go back to college. “They encouraged me so much that I packed up my kids, my husband, and all of my belongings and went to Northern Arizona University (NAU). I had 3 kids, so I needed a lot of stamina. I already had some liberal arts courses under my belt, so it took me about 3 years to complete the program and get my degree in health promotion.”

“While I was at NAU I worked part-time in the Multicultural AIDS/HIV Prevention Project. The fact I had worked for Johns Hopkins helped me get the job. My work with Johns Hopkins also helped me get a paid internship after college in a Native American AIDS prevention program at North Country Community Health Center in Flagstaff. I worked there for almost a year.”

“When I graduated and was doing my internship, I wrote a letter to the field director at Johns Hopkins telling her I had graduated and thanking her for her confidence in me and for encouraging me to go back to school. She said, ‘We have a position for you. Would you like to coordinate a family strengthening program?’ I said, ‘Yes’ and moved back to the reservation.

Riggs started working for the
Family Spirit Project in 1997. Some of the curriculum had already been developed. “I had learned about health promotions programs in college, so I had an idea in what direction the project should go and how to lead it. It was a very good job for me. A perfect fit. I got lots of encouragement and guidance from the staff of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.”

Back to School

Riggs is now eager to get her MPH. “When you look at the statistics on Indian Country, you see a lot of health disparities. There is more disease prevalence than in the rest of the population. There is a humongous amount of work to be done. I want to help more. A bachelors degree doesn’t seem like enough.”

Riggs is studying for her Graduate Record Exams, but meanwhile she has been taking some of Johns Hopkins’ internet-based courses. She will also attend the Hopkins Winter Institute and the Summer Institute. Students can take up to 16 hours of these courses before being accepted into the graduate program in public health. “If I’m admitted to Hopkins, these courses will count toward my MPH,” says Riggs.

If she was based on the Baltimore campus, Riggs could get her MPH in one year. It takes 3 years to get an MPH via the Internet. Riggs cautions that distance-learning program isn’t for everyone. “To do the Internet courses, you have to be disciplined and self-directed,” she says. “ The lessons are live. You can actually listen to the professor and type in questions. It’s really cool.”

There are some advantages for students, like Riggs, “I can keep my job and continue supporting the family. I can stay on the reservation and get a degree through Johns Hopkins. Isn’t that great!”

Long-term dreams

“My first long term dream is to get an MPH. I want to help the Navajo Nation improve the quality of life of our people. We need to emphasize prevention. The lack of emphasis on prevention has cost us a lot in the way people live and in the dollars it costs when problems develop that could have been prevented. Heads of departments need to be able to write grants to supplement what the Navajo tribes gives them. Programs should be built on scientific evidence. We should use models that have been shown to be effective and have a positive impact.”

Advice

“If you want to consider a career in public health, do community volunteer work,” Riggs suggests. “It shows you care for people. Also, it gives you a chance to see if you like the work. And if you have experience, such as in health education, it will be easier for you to understand the concepts when you study them in a class.”
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The article above was originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Tina Santiago, Coushatta.)

Update 2010

Despite budget cuts Lola has been able to continue with her important work.

Update 2008

In 2004, Lola Riggs left her work with Johns Hopkins and became senior manager for the northern region of Coconino County Health Department based in Page, Arizona. As a senior manager, she oversees the operation of the health services for Page and the surrounding areas, including the Navajo reservation, Fredonia, Colorado City, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The services that Riggs oversees include programs in tobacco prevention, healthy families, care seat safety and food and water inspection. When she worked for Hopkins, Riggs didn’t have to pay for her MPH classes. She no longer has that benefit so she has had to put her dream of completing her MPH on hold. Meantime, she is learning a great deal on the job.