Chancellor Steve J. Schwab, MD, senior-level administrators and students at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) recently welcomed Rev. Jesse Jackson to the UTHSC main campus in Memphis. The civil rights leader and Baptist minister is in town to commemorate the 44th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to replace the wreath on the balcony outside of the room at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King stayed and was killed.
African-American students representing each of UTHSC’s six colleges – Allied Health Sciences, Dentistry, Graduate Health Sciences, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy – had the opportunity to meet and converse with Rev. Jackson. The globally recognized civil rights leader called the UTHSC students “role models and frames of reference that our community needs you to be. You have fulfilled the dream,” he said referring to Dr. King’s, world-famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” “To be equal we have to study…We have to be first in excellence, in education and in preparation,” he stated.
Furthermore, Rev. Jackson observed, “Too many of our children come from so much brokenness, from a real, dark place. You have to be part of the light, part of the overcomers. When we realize success, like you have, we have a tendency to conceal our pain. By sharing what you’ve been through to achieve your goals, you can spread that light to others.”
When discussing the many serious challenges in the African-American community including health disparities, guns, crime and drugs, Rev Jackson told the UTHSC students, “You can be disgusted by the negative circumstances you see around you, but don’t be disheartened. Don’t let it break your spirit. You will never know what seeds you plant when the children of our community just see you. You are the faith and the substance of what we are hoping for.”
Challenging the UTHSC students as they move forward in their health professions, Rev. Jackson stressed, “Nurturing and mentoring matters…Seize this unusual moment in your lives and apply it. You have a long time to apply it. Our children need more exposure to young people like you because usually you do what you know. Our children have limited dreams because they haven’t had the exposure to know what vast possibilities are out there. You can help our children dream bigger dreams.”
“Our university community has a solid commitment to diversity in staff hiring, student enrollment as well as faculty employment and retention,” said UTHSC Chancellor Schwab. “The thousands of health providers who we educate and train every year are dedicated to serving every member of our community with high quality, confident care. To give our very best service to the men, women and children who need our skills, we must engage patients, their families and our colleagues with mutual respect and appreciation for our varied backgrounds and experiences.”
Among the team members who met with Rev. Jackson were Theotis Robinson, UT System vice president for the Office of Equity and Diversity, who was one of the first three African-Americans ever admitted to UT; Ken Brown, JD, MPA, PhD, UTHSC executive vice chancellor and chief operations officer, who in 2005 became the first African-American to serve as chief of staff at any UT System campus; Noma Bennett Anderson, who 21 months ago became the first African-American dean of any college in the history of UTHSC, leading the UTHSC College of Allied Health Sciences; and Marie Chisholm-Burns, PharmD, dean of the UTHSC College of Pharmacy, the first African-American to ever lead the college and the second African-American dean in UTHSC history. The UTHSC College of Pharmacy enrolls more African-American students than any other pharmacy college in the nation, outside of historically black colleges and universities.
“The message you are sharing with us really resonates,” noted Dean Anderson, “and we appreciate you being here to share that message. We will follow what you are saying in real ways and translate it into action with real numbers.” The dean explained her own passion for enrolling more African-Americans in the diverse health care careers available in her college. “African-American students should not be and will not be missing in action in our programs,” she stated. “All of our department chairs understand that inclusion is a real, measurable goal we must meet.”
“When I look at your faces around this room, I’m encouraged,” Rev. Jackson told those assembled, focusing keenly on UTHSC students. “The leadership you are looking for is around this room.”