Like millions of Americans, David “Jax” Kelly remembers when an HIV diagnosis was considered a death sentence, as the virus would likely cause AIDS and heighten the risk of contracting life-threatening infections.
Thankfully, many medical strides have been made in the past four decades, and while there is still no cure, HIV can now be managed so that patients live long, healthy lives.
Kelly knows this firsthand, having kept in top shape while living with HIV for 16 years and counting. But keeping HIV in check raises another challenge: how to help people who are aging with the condition get the care and support they need.
“We need to find ways to increase their acceptance into programs that can meet their needs — which also means eliminating any stigma,” Kelly told USC Online. “That’s my biggest goal.”
Over the years, Kelly’s skills and determination have been called upon by Los Angeles County, the California state government and a number of nonprofit agencies — including the Palm Springs chapter of Let’s Kick A.S.S. (AIDS Survivor Syndrome), for which he serves as president.
And now, in the online Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Keck School of Medicine of USC, Kelly is honing his expertise in fostering healthy communities to further his role as a champion and counselor.
Banking on Advocacy
Before finding himself in the field of public health, however, Kelly pursued careers in both finance and law, becoming adept in negotiation and intellectual property.
Graduating from Yale in 1984 with bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science, Kelly said he “followed the herd to Wall Street” and joined “about 80 percent of my classmates” to start a career in high finance.
From there, he received an MBA from New York University and climbed the corporate ladder to become a vice president of JPMorgan Chase. Yet as he built his career, the tragic crisis of HIV/AIDS epidemic sprang into public awareness. In response, Kelly became an advocate by joining the board of the Upper Room AIDS Ministry in New York, which has since become Harlem United’s Community Health Center.
In 1995, he returned to the world of academia, earning a law degree from Fordham University and preparing for a new chapter in his life.
“I’d worked in banking for 15 years and thought it was a great time for a break,” Kelly said. “I packed my bags and moved to California.”
While a future as an attorney specializing in IP law beckoned, his passion for helping people who were HIV positive continued. And in 2006, the cause became even more personal.
“I was diagnosed with HIV, and it totally changed my life,” Kelly said. “I resolved to use all the skills I’d attained in finance and law to improve the lives of people who have HIV.”
But with appointments to the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV and the California Equity and Aging Committee, Kelly realized that many of the professionals he worked with listed MPH among their credentials.
“I started learning more about the field, and more and more of the people doing impactful programmatic and policy work were ones who held this degree,” Kelly explained.
Finding the ‘Perfect Fit’ in USC’s MPH Online Program
By the time Kelly was ready to go back to graduate school, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced many university offerings to shift online, which also allowed him to consider the advantages of remote learning.
“With my schedule, I didn’t want to commute to a classroom,” he said.
Employing the attention to detail that has served his varied career well, Kelly explored the MPH landscape: “I was interested in programs that existed since before COVID,” Kelly explained. “I wanted to make sure they weren’t just applying a Band-Aid to an existing degree.”
Searching nationwide, Kelly wasn’t necessarily set on applying to a California-based program, but after speaking with the USC MPH online admission’s office, he realized it was “the perfect fit” for his career goals.
That fit included getting to know and working with fellow students from a range of backgrounds, as the MPH adds value to a multitude of professions, including health care, communications, public policy, disaster relief, insurance, pharmaceutical development and more.
“I saw a diversity that I wasn’t expecting,” Kelly admitted. “There were people of different ages and nationalities. One of my classmates was stationed with her husband at an Air Force base in Germany.”
Given the range of professions represented in Kelly’s cohort, it came as no surprise that students were able to apply their specialized expertise to the program’s group projects.
For example, Kelly noted, “in our policy economics class, the professor put me in a group where I was the only one with a background in finance. But it was fun because I felt like I was in a teacher mode as we worked together.”
Fast-Tracking His Degree
The MPH online program is designed to accommodate the schedules of working professionals, and while many students complete the program in two years, Kelly opted for the fast-track option: four semesters of full-time studies.
“With classes, a practicum and a capstone, it’s a lot of work,” he said. “But I got both my MBA and law degree while working full time at the bank,” so he knew he could do it. “Although one of the pieces of advice I got from admissions before starting classes was to pare down some of the things I was doing.”
Instead, the MPH widened the geographic scope of Kelly’s volunteer work from the East and West coasts to the Midwest. His practicum involved interning with the AIDS Funding Collaborative, a public-private partnership that provides grants and other services to bolster responses to HIV in Cleveland.
Without slowing down, Kelly became chair of an Ohio Department of Health community committee focused on the needs of people growing older with HIV.
One of the MPH’s biggest advantages, according to Kelly, was that he could immediately apply what he was learning to his own aims.
“Every time I got an assignment, I tried to somehow focus it on HIV and aging,” he said.
And today, with an impending August graduation, he continues to do exactly that.
Learn more about the Master of Public Health online program today.