t's a gorgeous winter's day in West L.A. , and I'm shaking the hand of a legend in Elysee, a noisy patisserie a scone's throw from the UCLA Medical School.
A grueling week has found its Friday, and Dr. William Vega is relishing the impending holiday downtime he will use to play piano, catch up with his wife, converse with his kids, and hit the gym. Every minute is precious to Bill Vega, and therein lies the secret to his spectacular success: time management. He concurs.
“I believe time is the most important asset we have, and we can't waste it.”
In the madly competitive research domain of drug, tobacco abuse, aging and health services, there are experts, and then there is Dr. William Vega. Vertiginously high on the totem pole, Vega is in the top 0.5 of 1 percent of the most cited authors in social science worldwide, a spot he's held for more than 20 years, according to ISI Web of Science.
This is no statistical error. A long-established authority on mental health, substance use and health services utilization, Vega has published hundreds of articles, chapters, and has co-written a quartet of books on these radioactive subjects, including “The Stress and Hispanic Mental Health”, “Ethnicity and Drug Use in Early Adolescence,” “Latino Male Health”, and “Culture and the Restructuring of Community Mental Health”.
Underscoring his decades of extensive studies of Latino children, families, women and men, his present job, a logical progression in a career of consequence, fits him like a glove.
Dr. Vega's January 2010 appointment as Executive Director of the Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, based at the USC School of Social Work is a major milestone in a career paved with progress.
The Roybal Institute, dedicated to translational research, policy advocacy and training that improves the health, mental health and care of older persons, particularly those from low-income and multi-ethnic backgrounds, is the perfect spot for William Vega. As E.D. Of Roybal, he comes full circle; at 66, he is positioned to make a difference, resonating uniquely with the study. High praise from USC Executive Vice President and Provost C. L. Max Nikias greeted Dr Vega: “He is widely considered one of the visionaries in this increasingly important field.” He could also lecture effectively on 'scheduling as it relates to career advancement.' Vega additionally holds present joint appointments at the Keck School of Medicine of USC as Provost Professor and as Adjunct Professor for the Department of Family Medicine at David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California.
All of these lofty plaudits, acclaim and commitments could cloud the goals of a lesser man, but Bill Vega's idols keep him grounded. Who inspires Vega? “Of course, there are paragons of self sacrifice which progressive people always look to such as MLK and Cesar Chavez, but probably more consequential [for me] have been the everyday leaders that I have had the good fortune to have as friends. My closest friends were Joe Serna (now deceased), former councilman and two-time mayor of Sacramento, who was an exemplar of principled leadership for me. He was the son of a farm worker and grew up in a house with no indoor plumbing in Lodi, California, yet went on to become a college professor, mayor and run presidential campaigns in California.
Similarly, my lifelong best friend and compadre Juan Carrillo who was a long time executive and later Acting Director of the California Arts Council, who could with natural facility move between worlds as diverse as the L.A. Symphony and artists in the schools and minority neighborhood programs. For me, this was the type of leadership we need — leadership that could transcend worlds and cultures and be effective in making changes that improved lives.”
Vega's own litany of prestigious awards, appointments and accomplishments stretch over a 25-page curriculum vitae; it is safe to wager that it is because of, and not in spite of, these many milestones that Dr. Vega has retained his compassion and perspective. Acutely aware of the suffering of others, Dr. Vega hip pockets his own humble grass roots, holding them close like a talisman. It has been more than 40 years since Bill Vega took charge of his life, but the touchstone of the past still grounds him and continually authenticates his connection to humanity, and to Latinos. It seems that he's always on the edge of research trends. Way back in 1987 he led studies that sound current even now; “Border Health Research Program,” and “Social Learning of Diet and Physical Activity in Children.”
Even at this stage of his life, after all he has accomplished, there are no cozy laurels for Vega to recline upon. There is so much that needs doing and just so many hours in the day. In person, he comes across as a calm, easy-going and obliging professional, not the high-strung, antsy Alpha-intellectual one might expect. Bill Vegas has learned to smell the roses while driving at 90 mph. “It has been a very rich life. When you're not sleeping, you're working. It's super competitive. To do what I do, you have to do a lot of work to maintain my legitimacy. I have to work that hard.”
Vega has strong intentions to rectify what is in his power. Solid, accurate research justifies grants, federal and state funding and private donations. Bill Vega's stellar credentials help to get Latino studies and clinics funded. Lock that down with the ultra-prestigious USC hook-up and this spells good news for Latino future health care. Vega has the respect of the community and his colleagues.
“The institute is poised to make a powerful contribution locally and nationally with the recruitment of William Vega as director,” said Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work. “The planned focus on mental health and health disparities of minorities will also make the institute unique among others.” Before the Roybal appointment, Vega was director of the Luskin Center on Innovation at UCLA. In 2002, he received the Society for Prevention Research's Community, Culture and Prevention Science Award and the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse's National Award of Excellence in Research by a Senior Scientist. He has served on numerous task forces, among them health disparities work groups of the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Methamphetamine, the Institute of Medicine Board on Population Health, the Committee on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Treatment Effectiveness and the Institute of Medicine Health Disparities Roundtable. Being an expert on mental health holds a mirror to your every action; Vega is self-aware, possibly to a fault.
“Once I became somewhat successful, it was self-reinforcing, you learn the professional ethic and the expectations, and the opportunity to at least try and make a contribution to improving the human condition any way you can and that is the most frustrating part. At the personal level I'm challenging myself, at the professional level I'm competing against a universe of smart people for access to research money, and it is a very tough business.”
Here's the story of William Vega, may it inspire.
EDUCATION: THE CURE
Dr. William Armando Vega: “The single greatest place where we are falling down is education.”
Good for what ails us: Education. It certainly was a make-or-break in the life of William Vega. He travels lectu
ring worldwide, and while on the road he still conducts his business in L.A. Vega puts his heart in the work, not just his head. “It's exhausting, it's a treadmill, and to stay on that treadmill, I actually have to run a real treadmill,” Vega jokes. But it almost didn't happen.
As a high school graduate with an uncertain future, Vega was driven by some invisible force which even he is at odds to define. Unlike many academics, who follow in the footsteps of some ingrained family tradition, Dr. Vega had no such aspirations when he grew up. His story is even more Dickensian than most; Bill's immigrant dad was a gardener, and Bill was his willing assistant. “My dad came to the US as a farm worker; and later he was a gardener. I was his assistant.
Vega's mother was sickly; she contracted tuberculosis when Bill was a young boy and was taken away to live in a hospital. Between the ages of 8 and 13, he rarely saw her; she was a resident of Olive View Medical Center for many years, in tragic isolation. She died at 40. William grew up in East Los Angeles and South Central Los Angeles. “As a kid, I bounced around. I stayed with family and friends. For a while, I lived in Tijuana. I was not in any way an academic major; I was a product of the marginal public education system.”
Bill Vega went to work in a factory making cannon shells where he worked the graveyard shift. He knew that this was not his path. “My drive initially for an education was to escape poverty and limited opportunity.”
By the time that Vega realized his future lay in higher education, he had already been on the wrong track. He didn't have the ‘academic cluster’ to get into schools like USC or UCLA. The only school that Vega qualified for was the University of Oregon. “I applied, took out a loan from B of A, packed up my car and drove up there.”
U. of O.'s enrollment office had his paperwork, but had not bothered to call Bill Vega back. At this juncture, he would not be denied. “I said to myself, ‘if I worked as hard as I could, I'd get C's’. That was a big step from where I'd been. Working full-time and studying was physically draining. I was lucky to stagger through. After that, I got into Berkeley, where I received all of my degrees.”
In the moment before settling down to 30-plus years of non-stop work, William Vega experienced Europe, living there from 1970 to 1971, writing his dissertation and again in 1973 to 1977. He learned Flamenco guitar in Seville and lived on Paris' Left Bank. Returning to the United States, he began by lecturing on sociology, but quickly found his calling in health and research. Subconsciously the loss of his mother left its mark on Bill Vega, but it wasn't until many years later that he would recognize this.
By that time, he was on his way to academic greatness. Initially, Vega did not take any health related studies, he majored in sociology, and earned his M.A. and PhD in criminology, but eventually found himself drawn to the people who were “historically neglected.” Vega became committed to “getting them the care they needed. ” He focused on how to improve access and quality health care, but not before he spent considerable time studying the effects of substance abuse. His impressive academic endeavors included a stint as Task Force Member, to U.S. Attorney General, National Methamphetamine, Secretary of National Latino Council on Alcohol and Tobacco Prevention; Washington, Director of Research, Behavioral Research and Training Institute; Robert Wood Johnson, and President of the Board, National Latino Council on Alcohol and Tobacco Prevention, Washington, D.C.
EDUCATION AND ECONOMICS:
“We know where this is going – only those well-educated will survive.”
Dr. Vega is passionate about education for Latinos. “Particularly in this state of California, where we have the highest concentration of Latinos, we need to have educated Latinos whose incomes can support the economy.”
With the population growth pointing to Latinos as the fastest growing group in America, we cannot afford to have high school dropouts. A majority of low income Latinos will prove disastrous and could bring the U.S. to financial collapse.
“Estimated population in LA in by 2050 will be half Latino. You need high incomes to sustain the state. If the population cannot support the state, it will fall into ruin. We need to talk about why schools are so bad. We have to take responsibility to get kids educated and to find support and advocacy to raise the educational level. We can't be passively accepting the failure of kids in public education.”
WHERE ARE ALL THE LATINO DOCTORS?
Education is the only solution for raising the Latino salaries and maintaining financial balance. But, according to Dr. Vega not just 'any' education’: “We need more, many more Latino doctors, and the situation is dire.” Dr. Vega exclaims: “Nobody's in the pipeline!” Latinos are getting educations but they are going into other things; most coming out of low-income backgrounds are going for the quick money. They go into business; medicine is too long a road.”
Vega laments, “It's a shame, because the ones with good grades; A's or A minus, can go to Harvard on scholarship, or at the very least get partial support. With a 30 percent Latino population in California, we only have between 5 and 6 percent of doctors as Latinos. And what's especially lacking are Spanish-speaking.”
AGEING AND SUSTAINING
I was 66 a few months ago and received my first social security check; it was a wonderful experience to receive it, after 43 years of paying in. Of course, I work out three times a week for a couple of hours each time with weights and cardio. It’s the only way to keep yourself in peak condition for a heavy work schedule. I'm no saint when it comes to personal care…I love to eat, but a balanced life is how you go forward.”
FUTURE OF AGING LATINOS AND LOW INCOME HEALTH CARE SOLUTIONS
“I'm shifting my focus to the population of 60 and older, as it affects the entire family. Current trends are alarming. If you look at the fragmentation of families from first generation forward, it's profound. The assumption is changing that multi-generational family care is a given.
“What we're seeing is a complete collapse of aging care; families are under tremendous stress, emotionally and financially. We need a local solution.” We have to stop siloing money, we have to find ways they [elderly] can live in communities that are safe, with transportation. The problem is to depend on formal networks.”
LATINOS, DRUGS, ALCOHOL AND HEALTH TRENDS
“Research on Latinos, drugs and drinking habits, reveal that immigrants show very little drug use; that's American-born Latinos who are the big users. Immigrants are more prone to be weekend binge drinkers. Here we see high rates of liver disease; these problems and the social conflicts associated with it are clear, and nobody's really dealing with it.”
“Latinos have very low smoking rates and breast cancer rates. Generally the health of immigrants is much better than the health of U.S. born Latinos. Latinos, per capita use less health care, which is lucky because two-thirds are ineligible for Medicare. Obesity is a recent threat in the last 20 years; obesity is a world-wide crisis; very poor countries obviously have low obesity. The problem is, as societies change, they come in close access to high fat and fast food.”