National Award for UH Manoa medical student Teresa Keala Schiff

It is not unheard of for a John A Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) student to enter the study of medicine after getting some work and life experience first. Teresa Schiff is one of those students. A graduate of Maryknoll High School on O’ahu, she earned a degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California (USC) and served with Teach America leading a classroom in Texas.

Her experiences on the U.S. Mainland brought her face to face with a cause she would embrace: social justice, which she defines as the opportunity to achieve equity. “On my way to class at USC, I saw so many homeless people living on the streets outside, some right around the corner from where I lived. I had everything my heart desired, yet I lived right by people who couldn’t even be sure they would have something to eat that night,” Schiff recalls. “It really changed the way I viewed the world,” says Schiff. “I had been given so much, and I thought, what can I do to give back?”

The question she posed to herself led to a decision to pursue a career in medicine. Explaining her thinking, she says, “As a physician, I would be equipped with a gift that I could give back for all my life. I can’t think of a better way to spend my life.”

As we catch up with Teresa at JABSOM, she is completing nearly six months of living in Hilo, seeing patients in rural Hilo, on Hawai`i Island. It’s an experience that has elevated her enthusiasm to full throttle.

“It’s amazing!” she begins, with a burst of excitement. “I feel like Hilo wrapped me in its arms in this big hug and it doesn’t want to let me go, and I don’t want to let go either,” she says. “It just keeps getting better. These are some of the best moments in my life.”

Teresa Schiff with JABSOM student affairs director Dr. Richard Smerz, Associate Dean for Medical Education Dr. Richard Kasuya, and Patrice Nickens

What’s unexpected is that she glosses right over having been recognized with a national medical education award a few weeks earlier. Yes, the Herbert W. Nickens Award for promoting better care for underrepresented minorities thrills and humbles her. But it is telling that her passion is for the people she meets, the causes she embraces, not for her own accomplishments.

For a 26 year-old, third-year medical student, those accomplishments are impressive. Schiff has co-founded an organization called Teen Health Camp, running workshops for public school students (grades 8 through 12) in rural island neighborhoods, to motivate them to consider health careers in fields including medicine, public health, nursing and pharmacy—which are all offered as degrees statewide through the University of Hawai`i. Schiff, along with third year medical student Eduardo Duquez and then-UH Public Health student Brandyn Dunn adapted the program for Hawai`i based on a model from Texas.

Teresa Schiff with JABSOM student affairs director Dr. Richard Smerz, Associate Dean for Medical Education Dr. Richard Kasuya, and Mrs. Nickens

Schiff, with fellow medical students Katherine Rieth and Jacques Ambrose, also has helped launch a four-year certificate program at JABSOM in social justice, the first of its kind at any medical school. “The hope is that this certificate program will cultivate a sense of social responsibility in the hearts of our young doctors that will translate to a lifelong pursuit of justice and advocacy for our brothers and sisters worldwide,” Schiff says. “It’s so important to be connected to our community and to speak up for others who can’t speak up for themselves.

Medical students, especially in their third year, like Schiff, are challenged for time, given the clinical training workload they assume in addition to their rigorous academic learning. So, how does Schiff manage all of these things?

“I believe you have time for anything you care about. I find joy this way. The most joy is when I’m working in my community I don’t see it as work. These are friends I want to be with,” she says.

With that kind of attitude, we can expect that life for Schiff –and especially for those around her –will keep getting better and better.

Our main photograph features Schiff with Patrice Nickens, the widow of Herbert W. Nickens, at the Nickens Award event in Denver.

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