Errol Pierre hasn’t been a student at Fordham since 2005, but as the years go by, he feels more connected to the University—and more about facilitating change in the Bronx—than ever. As the senior vice president of state programs for Healthfirst, the largest nonprofit health insurance company in New York, he works daily with his Bronx neighbors to help break down barriers to health equity in the borough.
“There’s so many issues that impact the ability for people to be healthy in low-income communities like the Bronx,” Pierre said, such as high unemployment, low graduation rates, and limited access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.
Pierre said Bronx County, where he’s lived for more than 15 years, ranks last out of 62 counties in New York when it comes to health outcomes. He’s on a mission to improve that statistic, not just through his work at Healthfirst, but also by mentoring Fordham students as a member of the President’s Council and by teaching health economics as an adjunct professor at Columbia University and other schools across the city. He said a holistic approach is what’s needed.
“There’s so many downstream impacts of not having [good]health [outcomes], but the solutions are outside of just giving people a health insurance card; it has to do with the total environment,” he said.
The Value of a Fordham Education
Born in New York City to Haitian immigrants, Pierre said the value of education was drilled into him and his older brother “the entire time growing up.” He watched as each of his parents worked multiple jobs to provide for their family and make higher education that much more accessible for him and his brother.
“My dad actually started a business cleaning offices, and the sole purpose was for his children to go to school, get an education, work hard,” Pierre said.
Pierre said that in high school, Fordham was on his radar as one of the city’s top schools. He liked that he could live on campus but still visit his family often. He also liked the University’s proximity to countless internship opportunities and the reputation of its business school. Add in the fact that he could continue running track, which he did throughout high school, and Pierre said he was sold.
“I knew I wanted to be a business major somewhere that would afford me the opportunity to have an internship. I remember, once I got the acceptance from Fordham and the ability to join the track team, that was my decision; that was it.”
Beginning a Lifelong Commitment
Pierre’s start as a Fordham student is imprinted in his mind for more than the opportunities and change it provided, though: 9/11 happened at the beginning of his first semester.
“I remember going to the rooftop of Dealy Hall with other classmates and looking at the city skyline,” he said. “I remember every single piece of that moment. There was so much bonding for that cohort.”
Pierre said that those moments, along with his time on the track team and in the classroom, were defining for him. “[You] figure out what you want to be when you grow up, figure out the type of man you’re going to be for the rest of your life,” he said. And that’s why he’s so committed to the University still.
“After I graduated, there was always a goal to stay connected to Fordham—you just want to give back because of how much was given to you as a student,” he said.
Offering Current—and Future—Students a ‘Hand Up’
One of the ways he tries to meet that goal is by serving on the President’s Council, a group of successful professionals and philanthropists committed to mentoring Fordham’s future leaders.
Last September, he joined two other council members on a panel titled “Born, Bred, and Making It in NYC.” He told Fordham students that a series of internships really helped drive him to his career and passion: equitable access to health care for everyone.
After graduating from the Gabelli School of Business in 2005, he earned a master’s degree in health policy and financial management from NYU, and now he’s pursuing a doctorate in health economics at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business—all to be better equipped to both find solutions to public health crises and to educate students to be able to do the same.
As a member of the President’s Council, Pierre has also contributed to the Fordham Founder’s Undergraduate Scholarship Fund. He recalled one incident when he was able to help clear the barriers of entry for one student of color with her heart set on enrolling in the Ailey/Fordham BFA in Dance program. Now, she’s in her second year of the program, he said.
In the past, he’s also had a chance to reach students before they enroll, offering advice and sharing his experiences with Black male student-athletes through his involvement in Fordham Gents, a mentoring group consisting of Black male alumni.
“I would sit at a table with 10 to 12 kids, and we literally would just talk about college life, school, how to write a resume, how to look for scholarships, things to think about when thinking about a school, my experience at Fordham as a Black student,” he said. “Giving back that way was very impactful for me, and I just felt it was a must-do because I wish I had that sort of exposure, training, and guidance. I wished I was able to meet alumni that were of color that said, ‘Hey, I’ve been through it.’”
Since December, Pierre, who recently finished a term on the President’s Athletic Advisory Board, has also been serving as a member of the Athletics Steering Committee and is hoping to facilitate a partnership between Healthfirst and the University. He said that recruiting from the communities it serves is a priority for Healthfirst, so the organization is looking to Fordham and other New York City schools for interns and recent graduates.
“Once COVID-19 is dying down, and we can go back into the community and be safe, where there’s opportunities for Healthfirst to do community engagement events in partnership with Fordham, we’ll definitely connect.” More than recruiting students, Pierre said the partnership would also focus on what can be done to help the community overall.
“My passion has been trying to work with anybody … because we shouldn’t be in a society where we have so much money, yet there’s so many people that need a hand up to help them have a better life and thrive.”
What are you most passionate about?
I’m most passionate about mentoring and helping people along their path to being the best version of themselves.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The sweet isn’t as sweet without the bitter.
What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
I have forever fallen in love with Harlem, New York. After that, Johannesburg, South Africa, is my second favorite place.
Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith. Actually, any book by Zadie Smith!
Who is the Fordham grad or professor you admire most?
I admire Anthony Carter, FCRH ’76 [a Fordham trustee and former member of the President’s Council]. He has been a thought leader and high-level executive in his industry. He sets a high bar and an amazing example of how to give back to the Fordham community. Lastly, he has created unique opportunities for other alumni, like me, to give back, too. He’s a Fordham titan!
What are you optimism about?
I am optimism about the COVID-19 recovery in New York City. As we return to normal, vaccinations are quickly becoming the gateway to our new, post-pandemic economy. This means the unvaccinated working class of New York could potentially be shut out due to their lower vaccination rates. This comes at a time when the need could not be greater. But I am hopeful that New York and the new administration in City Hall will find the light at the end of this tunnel.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Sierra McCleary-Harris.