Where Social Justice and Medicine Intersect

Megan Phan ’17

While studying neuroscience, chemistry and biology at Syracuse University, Megan Phan nurtured a passion for social justice. In medical school, she aims to craft a career based on health, community and equality.

Syracuse graduate Megan Phan sets a rose down during Remembrance Week's rose laying ceremony.

Megan Phan '17 graduated from Syracuse University a semester early as a member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program with a double major in neuroscience and chemistry, a minor in biology, and visions of a career combining medicine and academia. But science isn’t her only aptitude. Phan won first place in the 2018 Prize in Ethics Essay Contest, a national competition sponsored by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and LRN, an ethics and compliance management firm. This prestigious award was established in 1989 by Wiesel, the late Nobel Prize-winning author, teacher and activist known for his Holocaust memoir, Night. Wiesel and his wife, Marion, created the national essay contest as a way to encourage students to explore ethical issues that impact modern society.

Phan is a committed advocate for social justice and community outreach. Her winning essay, Dear Dad: A Long-Overdue Confrontation with Black and Blue, tackles highly charged issues of race, bias and police brutality. Inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son in Between the World and Me, Phan’s entry was crafted as a letter to her father, a police officer she has revered throughout her life. “Police officers are my heroes,” she wrote, “but how long can I justify my heroes’ mistakes?”

History and Remembrance

Questions like this started emerging while Phan was a student at Syracuse, particularly when she received one of the University’s highest honors. “Being a Remembrance Scholar was, without doubt, the most important and emotionally challenging part of my experience at Syracuse,” she recalls. “It was actually professor Biko Mandela Gray’s words at the Remembrance Week panel discussion on narratives of terrorism, combined with stories of police-related terror I’d heard from peers, that challenged my beliefs on police practice and the ways racism and the history of Black criminalization influence it,” she says. “Gray highlighted the importance of thinking of issues both within and beyond the police service systemically—a framework I now use to assess individual cases of prejudice, discrimination and resulting violence and trauma in broader society.”

Race and Research

While writing her entry, Phan approached this complex topic in the way she knew best—through extensive research. “I chose to write about race, implicit bias, and police brutality—topics I’d long forced myself to remain indifferent to,” Phan explains. “I made it a point to gather my insights not only from scientific and psychological literature, but also from narratives of and commentary by Black writers and police officers.”

Phan says winning the top prize is one of the greatest honors she’s ever received. “It serves as confirmation that the conflicts I’d been struggling with also resonate with others,” she asserts.

Real-World Preparation

Portrait of Megan Phan at graduation.

After graduating from Syracuse University, Phan moved to Seattle to work with Neighborcare, the city’s largest network of nonprofit community health clinics, to prepare for her goal of becoming a physician working with medically underserved communities. “I’ve been helping to expand the organization’s network of community partners through different measures,” she says.  “These include coordinating health education and preventative screening days throughout the Seattle Public School system, working with a local nonprofit to hold free cooking classes for our patients, assisting with events held by our homeless program, connecting diabetes educators with patrons of a local food bank, and continuing to provide medical, dental, insurance eligibility and WIC resources to the community at food banks, community centers, health fairs and cultural events.”

Also in the works is a series of multilingual health workshops for refugees and asylum seekers. “We focus on what to expect at an American doctor's visit, ways to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, local free and low-cost healthcare resources, exercise, nutrition and more,” Phan explains.

The Next Chapter Unfolds

This fall, Phan will begin medical school at The George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C. “I've always been drawn to GW because of the rigor and versatility of its academic programs and affiliation with some of the best hospitals and research facilities in the country,” she says. “Most importantly, its culture of community engagement and service to others aligns very closely with my own philosophy.”

Her post-graduate activities have been good preparation for the rigors ahead. “I've found such a passion for community-based health and addressing health disparities, particularly within urban regions,” Phan says. “This is something I plan to continue exploring through programs at GW that center around clinical public health, community and urban health, and working with medically underserved communities, all of which I predict will be vital contributions toward my growth into a service-oriented physician with a deeper understanding of social determinants of health.”

Mary Beth Horsington

This story was first published on July 12, 2019 and last updated on .


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