Apr 13 2012
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An RWJF Scholar's Non-Traditional Career Path from Public School Teacher to Medical Student

By Cheryl Chun, MS, MA, Health Policy Scholar, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College

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Before I was a medical student, I was a teacher. I taught high school mathematics for two years in the District of Columbia.

Being a public school teacher was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. I spent my days trying to not only excite my students about mathematics, but also to help change their life trajectory by encouraging them to go to college.

Neither of these tasks was easy. Many of my students cited math as their least favorite subject in school. And despite the college atmosphere my colleagues and I worked diligently to create, many of my students struggled to accomplish the necessary coursework and SAT scores they needed for college.

I realized that teaching high-needs students was more complicated than having a good lesson plan. While I will always believe in the importance of having a good teacher in the classroom and up-to-date resources for them to use, my time in the classroom has showed me that often good students fall behind in school because of obstacles they face outside school. My students had to deal with guns and gang violence, not enough money for basic needs, and inadequate access to medical care. Many had no medical insurance and would miss class to spend all day waiting in line at free clinics to translate for their sick parent; or be too exhausted to come to class after spending all night with their sick child in the Emergency Room. I also saw how inadequate nutrition could affect students’ behaviors and their ability to learn.

Witnessing these needs in my classroom inspired me to go back to school and become a physician.

While I hope that I made an impact on my students while I was their teacher, I know they made an impact on me and changed my life trajectory. I hope to one day practice in a medically underserved area and help provide care to those who need it most.

My time in the classroom also taught me that often the impact you are trying to make is substantially influenced by the laws and policies put in place that regulate your work. As a teacher, our work was constantly influenced by the No Child Left Behind Act—and I knew that as a physician my work would similarly be influenced by laws and regulations.

This knowledge served as my impetus to become a Health Policy Scholar at the RWJF Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College. I knew that no matter what specialty I decided to pick or where I ended up in the country that having a broader and more in-depth knowledge of health care policy would help me to better advocate for my patients.

While my teaching experience may have been the reason I applied, the RWJF Center for Health Policy program at Meharry has provided me with opportunities and experiences that shaped my views on health policy. More importantly, it has given me the confidence and skills to participate in the health policy conversation and hopefully one day shape it.

Chun is originally from Aiea, HI and attended George Washington University where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science with a Premedical concentration in May 2006. She taught for two years as part of her commitment to Teach for America in Washington, DC. During her time teaching, she received a Master’s of Arts in Teaching with a concentration in Secondary Mathematics from American University. After deciding that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine, she earned a Master’s of Sciences in Biomedical Sciences from Barry University in Miami, FL.

Learn more about the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at MeHarry Medical College.

Tags: Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College, Health Care Access, Health Care Education and Training, Health Care Workforce, Physician Workforce, Underserved Populations, Voices from the Field