In this Issue
America is often thought of as a melting pot, made up of people coming here from all over the world.
In fact, even long-time American families will harken back to their heritage, calling themselves Irish or Italian, for instance.
But the process of venturing to America from overseas is one motivated, very often, by the pull from the hope of prosperity and, also very often, by the push of unrest or turmoil.
And for people either of African heritage, or directly from Africa, the promise of America has often been a broken one. The fact that Touro University California could serve as a faint and distant beacon of hope, even in the face of many challenges, for a pair of COP alumni sisters, is remarkable.
Brigitte and Tatiana Ouabo came to the United States from Cameroon as teenagers – Brigitte in 1999 and Tatiana in 2009 – neither entirely sure what was awaiting them. Corruption, poverty and war plagued Cameroon at the time and the country is continuing to work on development and stabilization.
Although a major unknown, the United States offered the sisters hope where there seemed to be little in Cameroon at the time.
“I was fortunate that my older sister had already been in America for a few years and welcomed me,” Tatiana said. “However, the transition was still very hard.”
Along with native languages, Cameroonians speak both English and French. American English, loaded with slang and influence from other languages from around the world, can be very challenging to master for non-native speakers.
But that was only one challenge.
Brigitte worked her way through college, confined in a lot of ways by the limitations placed on student visas.
“On a student visa as I was, you are limited to the number of hours and locations where you can work. It took many years for my immigrant status to change and broaden my ability to work,” Brigitte said. Her journey was a slow and meticulous one because of this fact. “I worked two, sometimes three jobs to afford living expenses and put myself through college. I’d take classes one semester, and take the next off to work in order to save up for tuition.”
This was also during a time where texting, cellphones and voice over internet programs were rare. Staying in contact with her family in Cameroon was often only done through expensive calling cards.
“I could go a year without speaking to anyone in my family,” Brigitte said.
Being isolated from family wouldn’t last too long for Brigitte. Tatiana joined her
in America in between Brigitte’s two sons, Brice (2008) and Michael (2010) being born.
The journey didn’t get any easier for either of them, however. Brigitte’s plan to pursue a public health master’s degree was sidetracked with the arrival of her sons, but she hadn’t forgotten one of her early jobs, working as a clerk at a pharmacy in Santa Monica.
Quite by accident, she found herself filling in for a pharmacy technician who called in sick. “And I knew that's what I really wanted to do for a living,” Brigitte said. Some 13 years later and more than 1,500 hours of training under her belt, she had finally found herself accepted with TUC’s COP program.
“I have to admit that I almost gave up,” Brigitte said. “I thought about my family, who sacrificed so much to send me here, and giving up was not an option.”
Luckily for the Touro family, Tatiana was paying close attention to the process.
Tatiana, who had briefly worked as a waste water treatment technician, found herself working at Walgreen’s when Brigitte graduated.
“My sister was in pharmacy school at the time and she really inspired me and educated me about pharmacy,” Tatiana said. After taking time to shadow the pharmacist at her Walgreen’s location, Tatiana was sold.
Like Brigitte, Tatiana drew strength from her encouraging family back home, a quality
she sees in many immigrants.
“I believe as an immigrant, there is always that drive to succeed because you know people are counting on you back home,” Tatiana said. “When I came to the States, my parents and brothers were still back home, rooting for me.”
Graduation from Touro served as a seminal moment for both women. Reaching the shores
of America, as popularized so often in movies, isn’t the realization of a dream, it’s
just the beginning.
Earning their PharmD degree solidified their careers and futures in this country and that fact was not lost on either of them.
“I compare graduating from Touro to climbing a very high mountain and finally reaching the top,” Tatiana said. It was, “incredible and one of the happiest day of my life.”
“I can honestly say that graduating from Touro was the happiest day of my life thus far. I wasn’t just graduating from Touro, I was graduating from America,” Brigitte said. “That graduation day meant that I had overcome all those challenges and I had accomplished the mission my parents sent me here for. It was pure bliss . . . By graduating from Touro, I not only graduated as a pharmacist but as a mother, as a sister and as a daughter.”
The bottom line for each of the sisters is that the finish line, no matter how hard it is to reach or how long that journey takes, is always sitting there waiting to be crossed.
“I think persistence and hard work are very important. Never give up on your dream,” Tatiana said. “You might be going through some tough time, but always remember it’s temporary.”“It doesn’t matter where you are in life now. What matters is where you want to go and the steps, no matter how small you are taking to get there,” Brigitte said. “We each have our unique backgrounds and journeys. We do not all have the same starting line in the race . . . Run your own individual race and you will find yourself at the finish line in due time.”
Student Doctor of the Year Teekz Yenpasook would appear, to most, to be on the path to a prosperous and fulfilling future.
Looking into the past, the future then that has turned into Yenpasook’s present would have certainly seemed unlikely – especially to Teekz himself.
Coming from a challenged neighborhood, Yenpasook said, “Most of my friends, unfortunately, ended up locked up, knocked up, or 6 feet under.”
Few people in his neighborhood went on to college, let alone medical school. To end up at Touro might have seem, on its own, as Teekz beating the odds.
Not long before arriving on campus, the odds turned against him with a harrowing cancer diagnosis. Recovering from cancer treatments, and the traumas of a difficult childhood, are something Yenpasook deals with daily.
“I've dealt and continue to deal with a lot of insecurity, self-doubt, self-worth, multiple social-psychological trauma, identity crisis of a mixed ethnic cultural upbringing,” he said. “And trauma from growing up in a low socioeconomic environment, exposure to drugs, alcohol and gangs from an early age, and psycho-physiological trauma from having cancer, the cancer treatments, and the post-effects of chemo and radiation therapy.”
As many in Teekz’s shoes would want to “get out” of that situation and fine greener pastures for themselves – particularly armed with a DO degree – Yenpasook has always had an eye on using his degree and career to help other marginalized neighborhoods and groups.
“Getting accepted to Touro as a medical student was my chance at chasing that dream,” he said. The dream, for him, was to “come back with what I've learned and give back to my community, through compassion, empathy, and medicine.”
As he began connecting with some of these underrepresented groups, Yenpasook realized his journey was one of solitude. He discovered many others like himself, from his own or similar communities, who faced nearly identical traumas and negative circumstances.
“I saw that my visits, my talks, my human connection with folks from medically underserved areas, from underrepresented areas, homeless communities, students who experienced lack of resources, community colleges, lower GPA/standardized test scoring students—communities I identified with strongly—were empowered, inspired, impacted with positive change and motivated to continue on their journey towards their individual goals,” he said.
This interconnection built within him a key missing piece of the puzzle. Yenpasook had motivation, drive, compassion – but in working LGBTIA+ communities, women, and people of color, Yenpasook developed a sense of purpose.
“I started to develop a sense of direction where I could hopefully contribute my time, experience and knowledge,” Yenpasook said.
But dreams and passion aren’t enough. Like most medical students, Teekz has had to dig down deep to find the fortitude to push through the day-to-day difficulty of medical school.
“The pressure of medical school is not easy,” Yenpasook said. “I wanted to quit, I wanted to give up, I wanted to stop so many times. I constantly encountered self-doubt, self-acceptance, I constantly worried,” he said of his medical school journey thus far.
Despite the success to have made it this far, he still fights feelings of doubt, wearing his failures and brushing aside his victories.
“It took my mentors and preceptors, my family, my friends, therapy, mindfulness, resilience, reminders from my community and the connections I made while out in the community to ground me and lift me up so that I could continue to empower and lift up others,” Yenpasook said.
“Through mentorship, I discovered that I had an ability to pull out the light and strength in others who were struggling to believe in or nurture their own light,” he added. “Through friendship, I found interest in revamping medical curricula and how we view and interact with patients from a psycho-social-cultural lens. Through support and guidance, I helped to change the Mission Statement and Program Learning Outcomes of an entire medical program.
“Through advocacy, I gained courage to support and fight for social justice causes, uplift marginalized communities, and inspire higher education and health sciences to local Bay Area students,” Yenpasook continued. “But I did not accomplish any of these amazing feats alone and I am so grateful for my community and positive inspirations that have helped me during my time at Touro.”
Through that effort and support, Yenpasook has started to see himself less as the person he was in the past and more as the person he will soon be in the future.
“I truly enjoy the work that I do and plan to accomplish in the future to further positively influence others as both a physician and a human in our society,” he said, adding, “I do see a different image of me now and I believe more and more in myself and the work I am putting out to communities in need.”
The Touro University Joint MSPAS/MPH Program was awarded the “Excellence Through Diversity Award” at the 2020 Physician Assistant Education Association Awards Ceremony in October. This award recognizes the outstanding commitments and achievements of a PAEA member program that has made noteworthy contributions to promoting diversity in all elements of PA education.
The Awards committee noted “From its inception, the Touro University California Joint MSPAS/MPH Program has made substantial contributions in outreach to and recruitment from diverse and underserved populations; training and educational experiences for faculty and students; research and scholarship pertaining to diversity and inclusion; and leadership and advocacy. It is the only PA program in which all students earn a Master of Public Health alongside their preparation to be PAs. The integration of these two professions trains alumni to see both the individual patient and the community in which they live.”
In the video presentation during the awards ceremony, College of Education and Health Sciences Dean Dr. Lisa Norton was quoted as saying, “They (PA program) push the campus community to be forward thinking and embracing all aspects of diversity training.”
In fact, students from a disadvantaged background, and/or are from an ethnic or racial population that is under-represented in the PA profession comprise more than 78% of the program’s current student makeup.
The program has established memorandums of understanding with more than a dozen universities to ensure students from these backgrounds are seriously considered for inclusion in future incoming PA classes.
The program also has coursework aimed at improving student understanding of the unique needs of members of the LGBTQ community, the unhoused, immigrants, and other minority groups.
Recognition by PAEA for this honor was something the entire program took great pride in, citing it as a significant achievement.
In her acceptance, Program Director Grace Landel said, “Touro was founded on the universal values of commitment to social justice, intellectual pursuit, and service to humanity.”
She further explained that, “There’s a commitment from the university to the program level and social justice is the backbone of the university and the bedrock of the public health program.”
Landel went on to credit both the students and faculty for making the program what it is.
She thanked each faculty member individually, saying, “We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing without an incredible group of people I’m honored to work with.”
She concluded with noting the students are, “an amazing group of people who will go out and change the world.”
The College of Education and Health Sciences serves as a broad umbrella under which numerous Touro University California programs reside.
The person holding that giant umbrella is Dr. Lisa Norton, Dean of CEHS, and, as such, she’s highly involved with many different activities taking place on campus – even if in a virtual setting.
She appeared as a panelist for an American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education’s Leadership Academy in October. This session was focused on efforts to interject diversity, equity and inclusion awareness and training on the panelists’ respective campuses.
In a blog encapsulating the session, Dr. Norton credited Dr. Michael Barbour, an internationally known remote learning expert, in assisting with the technological expertise necessary to create inclusive online environments.
“We are lucky to have him to help both our own campus and the local school districts with information related to creating an inclusive online environment,” Dr. Norton said.
She also noted additional efforts, such as the Diversity Now webinar series, DEI committee, and student input for broadening and strengthening Touro’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
“We must be a part of anti-oppressive efforts in a real way to create change,” Dr. Norton said of Touro’s efforts to lead by example in a concrete and meaningful way.
Dr. Norton also appeared as a panelist for an AACTE Town Hall in November, which focused on Critical Race Theory.
Dr. Norton continued to stress the idea of leading by example, particularly for a Bay Area university surrounded by some of the most diverse communities in the state.
“I think that as a dean, it is my responsibility to connect these ideas,” Dr. Norton said during the town hall. “It’s not just the talking, it’s actually the walking. And we must make the steps beyond these statements to say this is the daily work.”
The challenge of inclusion is complex – particularly for institutions of higher education. Schools must not only find ways to open the doors to more students of diverse backgrounds, creating opportunities where few existed even 10 or 20 years ago, but these institutions must also develop training programs for faculty, staff, and students geared at understanding bias, and learning how to recognize and appreciate backgrounds different from our own.
This involves teaching critical theory and ethnic studies to ensure all of us are aware of the bias and the value systems we bring into higher education and creating opportunities for students to identify, celebrate and acknowledge the unique strengths and struggles our BIPOC students and faculty bring into the classroom.
Program directors and other support staff are always there to help Dr. Norton with the difficult task of juggling all of these challenges. Leading by example is a total team effort for everyone in CEHS.
“We no longer can be the university on the hill (or the island in our case),” Dr. Norton said. “We must be a part of anti-oppressive efforts in a real way to create change.”
During the holidays, there’s a common expression that reminds us it is better to give than to receive.
However, for students experiencing financial strain, it’s also nice to receive once in a while, which is exactly what happened with Touro University California’s College of Osteopathic Medicine student doctor Samaneh Bolourchi.
The Sterling Welch Scholars Grant, established by the American Osteopathic Foundation, provides funding to COM students because of their outstanding academic achievement, participation in extracurricular activities, strong commitment toward osteopathic medicine and financial need.
“I am honored to be selected among many qualified candidates for the … grant,” Bolourchi said. For Bolourchi, the recognition was appreciated – along with the funds, obviously – but she recognized she didn’t earn this award on her own.
“It is important to not get caught up in titles or the accolades, but to recognize and be motivated by the privilege of doing the work,” Bolourchi said. “For me, it is humbling to contribute to and continue the ongoing efforts of prior students, staff and faculty, in order to create opportunities for the broader community that we are a part of.”
Grinding one’s way through medical school is mentally and physically taxing. Indications that allow you to trust that you are taking the right steps forward in your path are a welcomed relief, she said.
“It is always reassuring and encouraging to feel appreciated for the responsibilities you have taken on, and so I am very grateful for this recognition,” Bolourchi said.
Although she was able to revel in her achievement, the recognition served to her as a reminder to also remember setbacks and use those as a motivation.
Bolourchi had applied to two other grants and not gotten them prior to earning the Welch grant.
“I honestly believe it is impossible to achieve success without experiencing failure,” she said. “Being persistent, gaining confidence in my own abilities, and being willing to learn from and collaborate with others has taken me a long way. Of course, none of this would be possible without my family, friends and mentors who have supported me throughout this journey.
This has been a year of staying determined in the face of difficulty in the healthcare industry, and Touro University California’s Integrative Medicine Symposium is pushing ahead despite the challenges that have been presented to normally in-person events.
The symposium, scheduled for 8:45 a,m, until 4 p.m., Jan. 10, features a full range of informative sessions and speakers from across the country.
In fact, event planners are hoping this year’s event can take advantage of the fact that attendees will be joining virtually – as will the instructors. The virtual aspect of the event has allowed planners to reach out to many speakers who might not ordinarily be able to present at IMS due to the length of travel.
The same holds true for attendees, with organizers hoping to reach a larger audience, which won’t have to travel in order to attend.
The lure of earning Continuing Medical Education credits for a fairly affordable price – as well as from the comfort of a couch – are big selling points, organizers point out.
But non-CME attendees are also encouraged to attend and the price for residents, students, community members and others in the non-CME audience has been kept low at just $20. With sessions divided into four main tracks: Community Medicine and Structural Racism, Physician and Patient Tools for Wellness, Complementary and Holistic Medicine, and Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine, the symposium aims to live up to its Integrative billing.
For more information on scheduled speakers, or to register, visit https://www.integrativemedicinesymposium.org/
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