Spotlight: Stephanie White, Member of DEI Leadership Team

This feature appeared in the blog of George Wright, the University of Kentucky's vice president for institutional diversity.

Recently, I was grateful to have a conversation with Dr. Stephanie White, associate dean of diversity and inclusion for the UK College of Medicine. Dr. White joined the University of Kentucky in January 2020, and she is currently a member of the DEI Leadership Team.

Can you tell me about your background?

I grew up in Fresno, California. Both of my parents were in the National Guard, and my brother and I grew up in the country on a raisin farm. My dad continues to produce raisins for Sun Maid.

My entire upbringing was colored with my parents trying to provide opportunities that they didn’t have. My mom wanted to provide varied educational opportunities and advocated for us to go to school closer to her work. I vividly remember the letters petitioning the school board to allow us to attend school in a different district. There was always an underlying demonstration of advocacy that she provided at different levels.

My upbringing was also colored by the history of our family and by the Black family tradition of learning about your roots and going on that knowledge quest of figuring out where your ancestors came from. The stories of my great-great grandfather being enslaved in South Carolina and eventually moving to California and farming. The significance of which is not lost to me as my family still farms on this land.  

How did you decide you wanted to become a doctor?

I knew in high school that I was really interested in science. The narrative was kind of like, “Well, you’re interested in science, and you like doing science fair projects. You should be a doctor.”

I thought that I wanted to be a family medicine doctor because that’s who took care of my family, and I knew that I wanted to see people over a long period of time. I like relationships; I like being seen as a resource. My interest in medicine only grew as I continued through college.

I decided to go to the University of Pittsburgh for medical school and still thought I wanted to do family medicine. Ultimately, I ended up in pediatrics. What I tell my medical students is that as you think about what you want to do, you are becoming a teacher. Whether or not you’re going into academics, you’re constantly going to be teaching your patients and their families something about their disease or condition or about prevention. You have to love that. You have to love teaching those topics to stay up to date on the information and to be able to convey it adequately. I liked focusing on the hope, optimism and prevention that came with pediatrics. It’s that ability to help shape and guide the future in a way that hopefully could be impactful on their longer-term health.

Can you tell me more about your job and what you do?

I am the associate dean of diversity and inclusion for the College of Medicine, and I also practice general pediatrics at Kentucky Clinic South. If I were to describe the essence of what I do, it’s trying to strategically create spaces for inclusivity to thrive. The College of Medicine was in the prime position for me to do this work because it had developed a strategic plan in which diversity and inclusion is a pillar – it had the infrastructure. But, more importantly, it had leadership support from the dean and leadership tam to show a commitment to expanding the possibilities and giving a little bit of leeway.

When I came to the College of Medicine, there had already been work done. At the same time, the committees that had been formed wanted to do more. I really came into a fertile ground to be able to plant some seeds. That was my intention: how can we plant seeds of intentionality for doing this work?

What is an indication of success with diversity, equity and inclusion at UK? How can we make sure we’re moving in the right direction?

I believe people would value knowing that although some plans may not actually come to fruition or may not be finalized, someone is thinking about them. When you think about how people feel valued, they want to know that they are a thought and that someone else has their lived experience at the forefront of their daily plans.

I think it would be helpful to communicate our processes more openly. To say, these are some of the things we are exploring. Full transparency, they may or may not come to fruition, but we are trying to think outside the box, and these are some of the opportunities that we’re looking at.

Is there anything else you would like to say given the work that you do?

I think it’s important for us to keep our eyes on the prize of why we’re doing the work that we’re doing. For me, and thinking about my role in an academic medical institution, it really is about fostering an environment where the future physicians who are going to care for our communities and the future researchers who are going to advance our abilities  are as well informed and mindful of how they can provide the best care for the US population .

I think sometimes the “why” can get away from us – why we’re in an academic institution and why we’re committed to being mentors for students, to creating inclusive classrooms, to trying to increase equity in terms of access to education. We can get bogged down by the bureaucracy of organizations. But as we think about what really resonates with us and what makes us proud to work at UK or to work in our roles, it usually comes back to the people. Thinking about how we can center that in our actions is the thing that keeps me going.

Ultimately, we’re trying to ensure that all of us, regardless of our backgrounds and our lived experiences, have the opportunity to find something positive that we can contribute to and to be valued.