Ingham County health officer receives Inspirational Woman of the Year Award

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Every year, the Michigan State University Center for Gender in Global Context honors staff, faculty, and student women on campus and Ingham County with the Inspirational Woman of the Year Award.

The Inspiration Awards highlight women’s abilities in several categories. Linda Vail, health officer of the Ingham County Health Department, was awarded the Community Engagement award. 

Linda Vail
Linda Vail

Women who receive the Community Engagement award demonstrate a commitment to engaging and advancing communities and organizations at MSU and in the greater Lansing community through service and leadership, per the MSU GenCen website.

Vail is CEO of the Ingham County Health Department where she oversees the operations and leads the entire department, which includes public health services, federally qualified health centers and correctional health. Vail also holds a small responsibility related to the medical examiner’s office.

Vail received her Bachelor of Science in microbiology from The University of Georgia in 1982 when she was 20.

Vail shifted into research and started graduate school for microbiology at The University of Georgia. In 1986, she moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and worked as a researcher at The Upjohn Company where she said she had a love-hate relationship with the lab.

“I love science, but I also felt it [the job] could be mundane,” said Vail. “You repeat things a lot. You’re in one room with a small group of people all day long, [and] it doesn’t involve a lot of different kinds of activities like my job does now.”

Vail went back to school and received her MPA in public health administration from Western Michigan University. 

While looking for laboratory jobs at the University of Michigan, Vail landed a job at Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services. She became the health officer four and a half years later.

By advocating for herself, Vail found what she was looking for in a career – the different dynamics, creating plans, and forming different relationships.

Vail said she had inadvertently fallen into a home. “All I can say is it felt right when I got there,” said Vail.

In 2014, Vail applied to the Ingham County Health Department, where she is currently.

Janet Lillie, assistant vice president for community relations at the MSU Office of Governmental Relations, has worked with the GenCen over the past year and half and nominated Vail.

Equity, including health equity, is part of the GenCen awards, which led Lillie to think of Vail.

Lillie said she thought about how COVID had really exposed health disparities that experts already knew about but that became very obvious because of how disproportionately COVID-19 affected populations, and how that was an element of equity.

“She is a community member that really stepped up and even in the face of adversity of people not liking what she was saying,” said Lillie. “She held true and strong to her decision that she made about what would be acceptable and what we needed to do in this county, and to me, that actually took real courage.”

Vail said that being awarded the Woman’s Inspirational Award means that gets to continue to advocate for people who tend to be disenfranchised or criticized for being ambitious.

She said that by breaking down barriers and standing up for people’s rights and demonstrating that you can help people and become a well-recognized leader, there are many ways to help others.

“The mission of the work really is just about how we walk alongside and meet people where they are and believe in equity, and really adhere to values of health equity and social justice,” said Vail.

Approaching her 60s, Vail said that she feels that she can be her genuine self, which she said did not feel she could do earlier in her career. Vail said that helping women get to that same place a lot sooner in their lives would be a tremendous amount of progress.

Growing up, Vail said her biggest influence was her father Thomas Vail. Although Thomas Vail was not college educated, Linda Vail said he was a brilliant man. The father-daughter duo did many activities together, but playing cards was where they were really able to communicate.

Even without a bridge game, Linda Vail said it was as though they could communicate without words that the two could finish each other’s sentences sometimes without even thinking.

Thomas Vail was always the proud father Linda Vail wanted him to be. It was never anything that he specifically did or said, but Linda Vail always knew that he wanted her to be exactly whom she wanted to be with no boundaries or glass ceiling to prevent her from reaching her goals. 

“If I hadn’t had a dad that made me feel like I can do whatever I want to be, then I’m not sure, as a woman at my age, that I’d have done all the things that I did.”

Vail said she has frequently found herself in the national limelight throughout the coronavirus pandemic and wonders what made someone decide to hire her as a health officer after only four and half years. 

It is an impostor syndrome everyone has to fight.

“So, here I am now, kind of like, ‘How did this happen?’ You know how it happened? Because I was not afraid to do my job and to do it right, and to be bold,” said Vail.

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