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Commencement Speaker Dr. Joycelyn Elders: Be the Change Agents

SCU 2017 commencement speaker is first African American U.S. Surgeon General.

Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders

As an outspoken advocate of expanded sex education, Dr. Joycelyn Elders has always been ahead of her time. At 84 years old, the first African American to head the U.S. Public Health Service may be retired, but she is still pushing for issues like racial equality in medicine and widening access to healthcare.

Elders was born to poor farming parents in Arkansas and worked in the cotton fields with her siblings while attending a segregated school 13 miles from her home. She earned a scholarship to college and went on to become the first person in the state of Arkansas to be board certified in pediatric endocrinology. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Elders the sixteenth Surgeon General of the United States.

Elders will speak at the university-wide Southern California University of Health Sciences Commencement ceremony on December 16. Below, she offers advice to soon-to-be SCU graduates about how to shape the future of healthcare in America.

What shaped your progressive views about sexuality and reproductive justice early on in your career?

In the ‘60s, I was the only pediatric endocrinologist in Arkansas. I worked in a very poor section of the state, and I was taking care of children with all kinds of problems related to sexuality and reproductive health. I also was taking care of people who were becoming parents before they were adults. I really had to think holistically about sexuality. It’s part of life, from birth until death.

How has American healthcare changed since when you were a new physician?

Healthcare has changed for the better. We have far more knowledge, and care is more patient-centered. And we’re beginning to think about ways to improve healthcare for everybody— people of all incomes and backgrounds.

What needs to be improved?

The United States still spends more money on healthcare than any other country in the world, but we don’t have the healthiest people. We spend most of our money on taking care of the sick, instead of keeping people well. We’re going to have to spend much more time and money on preventive health and getting people involved in their own care.

How can the next generation of healthcare professionals make a difference in the world?

Graduates today need to be change agents. I often use the old adage about a washing machine: When it’s still, it’s difficult to move, but as soon as it starts shaking and jumping around, almost anybody can move it. The best time to change something is when there is an uproar. So now is the perfect time for bright, young graduates to be involved in changing and transforming healthcare into what they want it to be.

“Now is the perfect time for bright, young graduates to be involved in the change and transform healthcare into what they want it to be.”

You have to have gumption and be clear about your own goals. You can’t be afraid to ask for what you want — you’ll get it sometimes. You can’t be afraid to ask our politicians, our patients, our schools — we have to ask everybody to help bring about the change that needs to occur. And you have to keep your eye on the prize, without worrying about who gets the credit. If the prize is making sure that all people have the best health that they possibly can, no one group or one person can get it all done alone.

How does SCU’s mission of integrative and interprofessional education fit into that vision?

Integrative medicine is the way of the future. We’ve been doing a lot of things in medicine the same old way for thousands of years, and it’s time to do something different. I think it’s important to look at the whole person — their physical, mental and spiritual needs. And I think it’s wonderful that SCU is using the most cutting-edge scientific approaches to inform how their students treat the whole person.

“Integrative medicine is the way of the future. And I think it’s wonderful that SCU is using the most cutting-edge scientific approaches to inform how their students treat the whole person.”

What is your one-sentence piece of advice for the SCU graduating Class of 2017?

Always do your very best for every patient that you see, and that’s good enough.

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