Lessons from a hard life transition: Learning to see the forest for the trees

By | May 18, 2015

As I prepared my last commencement address as president of Georgia Regents University, it struck me that the graduates and I have something in common: We are all in the middle of significant life transitions.

It goes to show that life is never static, change is inevitable, and transitions will happen throughout our lives. The ability to manage and make the most of transitions is an important life skill. It takes focus, adaptability, perseverance, faith in oneself — and sometimes sheer courage.

I’d like to share a story from my youth — a hard transition that taught me much about surviving and thriving in times of change.

I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay; my family moved when I was only three years old to Pennsylvania, where my father entered a PhD program at Penn State. About 10 years later, we were back in Uruguay, and my father was a physics professor at the university there.

This was the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Latin America was a veritable cauldron of political and revolutionary brew — a far cry from the leafy and calm neighborhood in Pittsburgh where we had moved from.

We soon found ourselves in the thick of riots, protests, tear gas, arrests, kidnappings, torture, and killings. It was during this period that I witnessed the kidnapping and shooting of an ex-minister of agriculture by an urban guerilla group, an event that impacted me deeply and brought home how tenuous our hold on life can be.

Then one day my father was arrested for looking vaguely “revolutionary,” sporting a beard and a Russian Cossack-style winter hat, which was very popular in the U.S. at the time, but which security forces deemed a communist symbol.

So we decided it was time to leave. My father first, to Puerto Rico where he joined the faculty at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez (the only land grant university in the Caribbean) and then, when he had collected sufficient monies, the rest of the family followed. A good thing, because shortly afterwards the country experienced a military coup d’état and the prisons overflowed, with more than 10 percent of the population jailed for being a revolutionary, a reactionary, or simply for being politically incorrect.

And in that transition to Puerto Rico we lost all our possessions — but thankfully not our will or willingness to work hard.

My father eventually negotiated a deal with a local land owner who had many acres of property: We would survey 300 hectares (about 740 acres) in exchange for a piece of land. Land served only by a narrow winding road that climbed the mountainside and that you reached by fording a flowing creek. Undeveloped land with no running water, electricity, or phone — and of course no cell phone or internet access!

Survey instruments require a clear view from one point to the next that is being plotted, and the land we were going to measure was basically unexplored.

And so early in August of 1971, when I was about 13 years old, my father gave my brother and me each our own machete — one that soon became an extension of my arm and which I still have today. Off we went cutting our way through the jungle, clearing paths so that we could survey.

Mind you, Puerto Rico is a mountainous tropical island. Fall and winter are humid, hot, and sticky, with the occasional monstrous hurricane. Spring and summer are humid, hot, and sticky, and it rains every mid-day.

For days and weeks, as we worked to measure this piece of unexplored jungle, we climbed hills and ravines. We crossed streams and arroyos. We slipped on banana tree leaves, fallen Seville oranges, and rotting mangos. We slid on the red clay that made up most of the topsoil of the island, until our t-shirts were stained orange, mixing with the brown of plantain tree sap. And we fought off armies of ants, beetles, and tarantulas — all supersized of course!

And we learned many lessons in those hot and humid months. That using the machete requires technique. You want to let the weight of the machete carry the tool forward while you slice downwards and to the opposite side of your body. You need to take care not to chop into a rock or a hard tree, which would twist the blade from your hand and wrench your shoulder, and even more importantly, make sure not to slice into your leg if you miss your cut.

And we learned the value of hard work, the need to never lose hope, and the eternal value of knowledge and skill and even more, the ability to continue to learn.

But what that summer taught me most, as my father, brother, and I surveyed that patch of muggy jungle on the west coast of Puerto Rico, was the need to keep one’s internal compass fully operational and in full use at all times. I learned to literally see the forest for the trees.

After shearing many a brush field, fern, tree, and bush — exhausted, sore, and blistered as I weaved my way to what I thought was my destination, only to find that I was well off the mark — I learned to visualize my destination, my goal if you would, in my head in order to stay on track.

This was an important lesson that helped me understand the need to always strive to see the big picture. To see the larger panorama. Because it is only when you can understand how the forest is laid out that you can craft a clear, efficient path to your goal.

And as we experience crisis, change, transitions, and even grave losses, we need to ensure we keep our goals clear and that we are able to place these within the larger context of our broader environment. It’s a lesson we used to stay on track as we created and transformed GRU and GR Health.

And a lesson I carry with me to this day.

Fostering a Climate of Inclusion at GRU

By | April 15, 2015

Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.
-Malcolm Forbes

Creating Georgia Regents University gave us an exciting opportunity that few large organizations have: to define ourselves from the ground up. Carrying forward priorities from our legacy institutions, we declared that “inclusivity” would be one of six institutional values and identified “sustained commitment to diversity and inclusion” as one of six strategic priorities.

And we did so because we recognized that our world is greatly enriched by exposure to and understanding of the widest possible range of human experience. Even more so on college campuses, where our young adults come to stretch themselves, stimulate their intellect, discover their passion, and begin to contribute to our world.

Over the past five years, I am proud to say that GRU has emerged an industry leader of inclusive excellence, and the nation has taken notice. The 2013 and 2014 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) awards; the 2014 NCAA award for Diversity and Inclusion; and the 2015 AMSA/Gay & Lesbian Medical Association Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health Achievement Award are only a few of the many awards that have come our way.

Recently, I had the opportunity to share our experience with other academic leaders at Harvard Medical School as part of their Office for Diversity Inclusion’s 2014-15 Leadership Forum. I’d like to share them with you as well.

First, we set ground rules for an effective framework:

  • The highest leaders in the organization must be fully committed to diversity value and goals.
  • Rather than focus on improving outcomes for specific groups, we focused on making valuing diversity part of the broader campus culture.
  • We made the business case for diversity — explaining why increasing diversity is the right business decision — in addition to making the ethics case.
  • We weaved diversity values and concepts into the fabric of our organization, rather than leaving them stranded in policy manuals and institutional protocols.
  • We articulated clear and transparent metrics and goals, then collected the data and shared it.
  • And we committed to providing appropriate funding, staffing, authority and structural organization to get the job done.

Our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, created in 2011, provided strong leadership, but we made it clear that the job of ensuring diversity and inclusion was everyone’s responsibility.

Then we — you — took action, and we got results.

  • Cultural competency training — So far, more than 11,000 physicians, staff, and students have participated in “Healthy Perspectives” cultural competency training to help us deliver better health care through better understanding of our culturally diverse patients. Before-and-after tests show organization-wide understanding across all groups has improved from 70 to 87 percent. And 86 percent of students agreed that the training contributed to their development as a future practitioner, while 82 percent agreed “the course was worthwhile.”
  • The GRU Healthy Respect initiative — In April 2013, top institutional leaders kicked off this effort by signing the Healthy Respect charter committing GRU to a culture of civility across our campuses. Last year, we launched the Healthy Respect website with tips, webinars, an events calendar, and other resources to help individuals get involved. I encourage everyone to make your own commitment by taking the Healthy Respect Pledge.
  • The annual GRU Diversity and Inclusion Summit saw its highest attendance last year when keynote speaker J.R. Martinez inspired a capacity crowd recounting how he not only survived, but transcended an IED explosion that burned over 34 percent of his body while he was serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Big things are in the works for this year’s event, so stay tuned!
  • Safe Zone and Equality Clinic — We launched our own Safe Zone program, part of a national initiative to foster creating safe and inclusive environments for individuals of all sexual and gender identities. And last fall, a free student-run, faculty-supervised clinic was launched to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender patients, the first of its kind in the Augusta area.
  • Religious diversity — To create an environment of religious tolerance, our Pastoral Care Department co-sponsored conferences for area faith leaders and offered a variety of educational events with the Student Interfaith Group and the Islamic Education Center.

And we have achieved results, with a 19 percent and 9 percent increase in health sciences student and faculty diversity, respectively, from 2010 to 2014. (We have had less time to assess improvements in the non-health sciences; see also a related blog post on building a diverse faculty.) And while our deliberate efforts to increase awareness resulted in a 66 percent increase in hotline calls over the same time period, complaints and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges in that time period dropped 44 percent.

Our work is not finished, but each of us can be proud of how far we’ve come. My heartfelt thanks to the uncounted students, faculty, staff, and administrators of GRU who live your commitment to tolerance and inclusiveness every day.