From athlete to advocate

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Conner Mertens ’17
    Conner Mertens ’17, a patient advocate outreach manager for Global Healthy Living Foundation, visited the Oregon State Capitol earlier this month.

The day before Conner Mertens ’17 lobbied for a bill at the Oregon State Capitol, he sat across the street at the university that helped him get there. 

In a few short years, his post-academic career has taken off. The politics major ran a campaign, became a public speaker and now fights for patients living with chronic disease on behalf of New York-based Global Healthy Living Foundation

Earlier this month, he met members of the House Committee on Healthcare and Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick to discuss pending legislation that may help patients gain faster access and insurance coverage to potentially life-saving medicine. But he wanted to make a stop first at Willamette, where his interest in advocacy initially took shape. 

“I’m so lucky to be where I’m at right now, and to be back on my old stomping grounds — I’ve come full circle,” he said. 

Interest in advocacy begins

Mertens had a highly-publicized start to his academic career — the former placekicker announced in 2014 he was bisexual, the first active college football player to publicly come out as LGBTQ — but he gained political experience like most Willamette students do: he walked across the street to the state Capitol. 

“I always knew I wanted to help people, and I realized politics can be one avenue to do that,” he said. 

In his first year, he connected with constituents and lobbyists through his internship for then-Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, and not long afterward snagged a plum internship at CNN with Anderson Cooper 360, where he was introduced to general TV production. Both of those experiences taught him different forms of storytelling, one of the most important skills he uses today, he said. 

He also embodied Willamette’s spirit of civic responsibility. When he was still living in the dorms, he founded a nonprofit supporting homeless LGBTQ+ youth called Out On The Streets, which joined forces with the Panhellenic and Interfraternity councils to make and donate blankets to an LGBTQ shelter in Portland. When doors opened to professional speaking engagements across the nation, he spoke about the power of athletics to spark social change in a vein similar to Brendan McGonigle ’20

On the fast track 

By the time he graduated, the momentum he’d started at Willamette only continued to grow. 

In 2018, he moved to New York to manage a political campaign for his friend, Anthony Nicodemo, who was running for the New York State Assembly. Mertens handled their strategy, endorsements and grassroots fundraising, and his exposure in that role later secured work serving New York Sen. Shelley B. Mayer, chairwoman of the Senate’s education committee, as a special assistant.

He teamed up with Nicodemo again later that year to restart the Hudson Valley Stonewall Democrats, a grassroots LGBTQ advocacy group, then joined Blue Media Project, a digital news agency that has so far assisted 12 campaigns. 

Mertens was communication director for Hudson Valley Stonewall Democrats when one of its board members offered him a role at the Global Healthy Living Foundation. He accepted the job in October. 

As a patient advocate community outreach manager, he’ll be zigzagging across the country over the next year, visiting major cities to advocate for patients at the state and federal level. He genuinely cares about the people and the cause — when that happens, it’s hard not to succeed, he said. 

“At the end of the day, I just want to make sure patient voices are heard,” he said.

He's grateful to have a job he loves, he said, and an essential part of what he does today he learned at Willamette. 

“I had so many amazing professors who made me realize the world is greater and bigger than myself, and likewise made me more interested in it,” he said. “Empathy is really cultivated here, and I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without it.” 

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