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Dean Marie Chisholm-Burns: Our Past Does Not Define Our Future

Marie Chisholm-Burns, right, is pictured with her mom, Wylean Chisholm. Lesson taught by her parents have fueled her quest to succeed and to help others do so, Dr. Chisholm-Burns said.

Editor’s note: This column by College of Pharmacy Dean Marie Chisholm-Burns first appeared in The Commercial  Appeal

We are not defined by the circumstances of our birth. Values, determination and perseverance can overcome the bleakest of odds.

These are the hard-won lessons I learned from my parents, Wylean and Arnold Chisholm. Both were raised in poor families. Neither graduated from high school, and their combined salaries never exceeded $20,000. And yet they worked every day to provide an honest, secure life and home for our family.

Despite living in a town in New York where the high school graduation rate was less than 30 percent, my parents were relentless in their dream of their only daughter graduating not just from high school, but also college. While growing up, they often reminded me of the adage, “It’s not how you start that’s important, but how you finish!”

My mom passed in 2002 and my father in 2009, but before that sorrow they witnessed with great pride my graduations from high school, college and pharmacy school. Years have passed and I still remember the twinkle in their eyes like it was yesterday.

Past circumstances and neighborhood statistics did not, nor ever will, define me. That is the legacy of my mother and father, along with a solid foundation of hard work, honesty, integrity, and giving back.

As I reflect on what it means to give back, my mind always goes to one place — a poem called “The Bridge Builder” by Will Allen Dromgoole. In the poem, a man in the twilight of his life is questioned about his efforts to build a bridge over a treacherous chasm, since he will never personally use this bridge again.

His reply: “There followed after me today, a youth whose feet must pass this way. This chasm that has been as naught to me, to that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be. He, too, must cross in the twilight dim; good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

 “The Bridge Builder” reminds me that we all have the capacity to give back in some way to our communities and to humankind. We can give our time, influence, intellect, and resources. More than that, we can give our enthusiasm, encouragement, dedication and optimism. This is the philosophy with which I approach both my work and personal life.

Like my parents, I appreciate the significance of education. Through education, I was able to defy the odds, becoming a pharmacist, university faculty member, and dean of a college of pharmacy.

As an educator, wife and mother, I abide by the principles passed down by my parents. They taught me to defy the quicksand of yesterday by forging my own unfettered tomorrow. It is my goal to pass this message to others through my actions and deeds.

College of Pharmacy Dean Marie Chisholm-Burns

For example, as a dean, I have been a strong advocate for limited tuition increases, greater student financial aid and assistance, and greater diversity and inclusiveness. My goal is to demonstrate that success through accessibility produces tremendous and scalable results.

In the six years that I have served as dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, we have implemented a regional tuition reduction plan that was recently extended from within 50 miles of Memphis to within 200 miles of each of our instructional sites in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville.

This program has opened the door to a pharmacy education for many who may not have thought attending the college was a realistic possibility.

I have had the great fortune to witness students from backgrounds like my own — rooted in poverty and struggle — excel beyond imagination, once provided with accessibility and opportunity.

With great honor and conviction, I can say my parents were right when they taught me that no one is defined by yesterday. What you do today and tomorrow to create a better future is what ultimately matters and prevails in the end.

Marie Chisholm-Burns, PharmD, MPH, MBA, FCCP, FASHP, FAST, is dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. 

She and her husband, John Burns, have endowed two scholarships to help students achieve. One in the UTHSC College of Pharmacy is designed to help a pharmacy student who is the first in his or her family to receive a four-year college degree. The other is at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, the town where her parents lived. It helps pay for a student’s undergraduate education.