While pursuing a dual degree in microbiology and history at Virginia Tech, Andrew Pregnall has also made it his goal to improve health care for the LGBTQ community.
Raised in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation near Washington, D.C., Pregnall witnessed the insidious effects of structural inequality in our nation’s capital. Drawing from his own experiences as a gay man, Pregnall understood that the same systems that marginalize minorities, immigrants, or the poor also undergird the discrimination faced by LGBTQ people. So when he arrived at Virginia Tech, he sought to understand the mechanisms that sustain social inequality and transform that knowledge into service to others.
It was through a Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship that Pregnall’s passion for LGBTQ advocacy began. By investigating policies at Schiffert Health Center, Pregnall made recommendations to improve the health care experience of LGBTQ patients, from including gender identity in the patient nondiscrimination policy to creating a long-term plan for bringing gender-affirming hormone therapy to Schiffert.
“My project exposed me to the breadth of issues LGBTQ people experience in a health care system that originally wanted to ‘fix’ them. I couldn’t help but feel a drive to do something about it,” said Pregnall.
Inspired by his on-campus research, Pregnall went on to an internship at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. He worked to improve the hospital’s care for LGBTQ patients by adding pronouns to patient boards, bringing training to providers on transgender health and PrEP/PEP (pre- or post-exposure prophylactic treatment for HIV), and helping Sibley release a list of LGBTQ-knowledgeable providers.
From there, he interned with the Vanderbilt Program for LGBTQ Health, where he educated first-year medical and dental students on LGBTQ cultural competency and health disparities. During that internship, Pregnall also researched the utilization of health care services by transgender people in Oregon — a state with Medicaid policies that are inclusive of transgender patients.
“I think of service as changing the structural elements of a system — like its policies — so that the root causes of a community’s problems no longer exist,” Pregnall said. He is working to change the medical education system so that current and future providers are prepared to deliver effective care to LGBTQ patients. “I want to change our nation’s policy environments,” he said, “so that LGBTQ people no longer carry the burden of being second-class citizens.”
Many have questioned Pregnall’s decision to major in such disparate fields as history and microbiology, but he sees a clear link. “I’m studying microbiology and history to understand both the biological and social contexts of medicine. I think you need both to effect change in individual and public health,” said Pregnall.
A student in the Honors College since arriving at Virginia Tech, Pregnall was encouraged to ask questions and seek solutions outside of disciplinary boundaries.
“Andrew is a prime example of the type of student we want to produce through an Honors education,” said Paul Knox, dean of the Honors College. “Because of his interdisciplinary inquiries into history and medicine, Andrew is equipped to both understand the inequalities present in medical care and seek tangible solutions for people.”
Pregnall has remained active in the Honors College throughout his time as a Hokie. In fact, he is currently in the Presidential Global Scholars program, a semester-long study abroad program for Honors students based out of the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. Pregnall also served on the Honors College Student Council as the representative for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. In this role, Pregnall helped lead the student working group that designed the new Honors Laureate diploma, which Virginia Tech and the Honors College officially adopted in Fall 2017.
Pregnall’s work at Virginia Tech extends well beyond his academic endeavors. A senior resident advisor in the Honors Residential Commons (HRC), Pregnall has served as a mentor to dozens of students. “In my time working with Andrew, I’ve been impressed with his dedication to helping others learn and grow,” said Stephen Henninger, student life coordinator in the HRC. “His mentorship has been invaluable to many students in the HRC.”
Pregnall’s role as a mentor has paved a way for him to be an advocate for his peers at Virginia Tech. In addition to his work in Schiffert, Pregnall has worked to secure better housing options for LGBTQ students, such as the creation of a Queer and Transgender Living-Learning Community.
“I’ve worked with Andrew in lots of different ways,” said Frank Shushok, senior associate vice president of student affairs, “but it’s usually because Andrew has seen an unmet need on campus, and he goes out of his way to advocate for that need. Andrew makes such a compelling, smart, and thoughtful argument for why things need to be better that I typically leave a meeting with him excited to get to work fixing it.”
Pregnall is currently working on his senior thesis in history, in which he is examining the discrepancy between the popular narrative and scientific literature surrounding Gaetan Dugas as “patient zero” of the AIDS crisis. To do so, he is using his training as a microbiologist to interrogate the scientific literature published during the early 1980s by scientists who were trying to understand what caused AIDS and how it was transmitted.
“Andrew is examining a range of sources that require training in both microbiology and history,” said Pregnall’s thesis advisor Marian Mollin, associate professor of history. “This is not your standard undergraduate project. He is really speaking to the larger historical conversation on the history of the AIDS crisis.”
Pregnall will be returning to Vanderbilt this summer to continue his work in LGBTQ health advocacy. After graduating from Virginia Tech in December 2019, he plans to attend medical school, where he will pursue both a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health to work as an academic physician and a policy advocate through an organized medical body.
“Andrew has a clear mission to make health care more available and efficacious for a marginalized community,” said Pregnall’s mentor, Robert Stephens, an associate professor of history. “This kind of work is badly needed, and Andrew has the tools not only to become a first-rate physician in this area but also, as he grows, to become a policy advocate who can help bring this previously invisible problem to light.”
The Virginia Tech Undergraduate Student of the Year Award is the most prestigious nonacademic undergraduate honor presented to a graduating senior. Selected by a committee of students, faculty, and administrators, the criteria for the recipients include achievements in academics, leadership, and service, exemplifying the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
Story and photos by Emily Harmon