Susan Cheng, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, School of Medicine, Georgetown University
by Alexis K. Morgan, Ed.L.D. candidate
July 26, 2017
A child of first-generation college students, Susan Cheng learned about the struggles her father experienced when he emigrated from Hong Kong to attend college in North Carolina. Even though he would eventually graduate from college, Cheng notes that he “felt the pressures to make it in a community where he didn’t have the tools to navigate the college landscape successfully.”
The trials faced by her father gave impetus to Cheng’s commitment to the education sector. Her parents believed in the power of education to transform their lives and those of others around them, advocating that more education signifies a greater ability to serve communities and empower others. Throughout her career, she has fought to open doors for students from underserved communities. Her background encompasses an extensive range of experiences, including her role as a member of Washington, DC’s mayoral transition team, manager of recruitment and talent for DC Public Schools, associate partner for NewSchools Venture Fund, and a founding team member for Braven, a nonprofit that “empowers promising young people on their path to college graduation and strong first jobs.” (https://bebraven.org/).
It is in her current role as Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion for the School of Medicine at Georgetown University that Cheng finds opportunities to impact students at scale by supporting their development and cultivating their talent. In Cheng’s eyes, she is carrying on her family’s legacy by serving her community. Seeing it as a responsibility, she recalls one of her favorite expressions: “to whom much is given, much will be required.”
Alexis Morgan: In 2015, your office transitioned from the Office of Minority Student Development to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. What is the focus for the new department?
Susan Cheng: My office is charged with increasing diversity and inclusivity of students, faculty, and staff at Georgetown. Some of the priorities include partnering with Office of Admissions to look at student recruitment. I also work on diverse faculty recruitment and retention issues, and addressing staff development. In addition to investing in these partnerships, I’ve been examining education advocacy around unconscious bias awareness to better understand how implicit bias can impact the way medical care is delivered and patient communication is impacted.
In my first two years, I worked with a faculty team at the medical school to have conversations around conscious and unconscious biases in medicine. This year, we’ve provided mandatory workshop for all first and second year students on cultural humility. This includes some of the basics of cultural competency, as well as [their role] as physicians in conducting a cultural interview with their patients. The medical school at Georgetown is developing new curriculum for all incoming medical students and I am working with faculty to develop a diversity and inclusion journey that will go over topics of cultural competency, bias mitigation, diversity contexts and cultural interviewing.
Finally, [one of the initiatives that has continued] is a 40 year program called the Georgetown Experimental Medical Studies Program (GEMS). Run by my colleague Dean David Taylor, it is a post-baccalaureate program for medical school students from underrepresented backgrounds who are looking to matriculate to medical school and need extra support in strengthening their learning strategies. In this program, students learn how to learn. This program has an enduring legacy of empowering those who have been underserved and disenfranchised with a pathway to pursue and achieve their dreams of becoming a physician. Many of these diverse physicians in turn, have gone on to serve our nation’s diverse minority and underserved patient populations and meet their healthcare needs.
AM: What factors influenced you to choose this career path?
SC: My parents were both first generation college students. My father struggled a lot when he started college in North Carolina. If only there was a guidepost [tools to navigate the system], it could have saved him from a lot of anxiety and pain.
I’ve had experiences working abroad that had a profound effect on me. I worked with Rwanda Partners in Health. I also partnered with the Akilah Institute for Women, a program for Genocide Survivors in Rwanda. Being abroad and working with a community of folks that survived a genocide, but [had a] hunger and desire of education greatly impacted me. These women were changing educational and life outcomes for the next generation.
I had the benefit of hearing about my parent’s education experience and learning [at an early age] the importance of service. Higher education was seen as a lever to improving the individual] and the community.
AM: What is the potential for impact on K-12 education?
SC: I oversee the creation of new programs at the K-12 level. One is a partnership with the DC Public Schools to get more high school students to shadow physicians and work at the Georgetown School of Medicine who are interested in a career in the health sciences. We’ve also launched a new, national program called the Academy for Research, Clinical, and Health Equity Scholarship (ARCHES). ARCHES is a pipeline program for undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds or are first-generation college students who are interested in pursuing medical studies. It is a great opportunity for students to shadow physicians, get laboratory experience, do community service learning with free clinics and volunteering organizations during the summer.
AM: What essential leadership lessons for women have you learned throughout your career?
SC: It is critical that leaders carve out time for reflection on a regular basis. Reflection time needs to take place for individuals to assess facts of the situation before making a decision. I’ve also learned to take up more space. Particularly as a woman in leadership, it is important to take your time to own your space versus minimizing your presence or sitting off to the side. Women need to take a seat at the conference table and own their space and air time. Finally, don’t take things personally. A lot of [what is said and done] is about an individual’s role and authority. It is important to diagnose what is happening carefully so that women don’t lose their way.
AM: What do you want to be your greatest accomplishment in the next 5 to 10 years?
SC: I continue to see myself working in higher education and working at either undergraduate or graduate levels. My mission is to increase diversity and inclusion of underserved students, my passion is focused on the development of first generation college students and how to best advance their needs from a systems level. I want students to feel like they are able to own their own power while in this system.