Andre Campbell Highlights Social Justice, Diversity During Last Lecture

By Mitzi Baker

It’s OK to not know what you want to do when you grow up – even if you’re already a famous trauma surgeon.

That and many other nuggets of wisdom were imparted by Andre Campbell, MD, during his delivery of the 2016 Last Lecture that contained the underlying theme of the importance of social justice and diversity.

The UCSF Last Lecture is an annual tradition in its fifth year that features a UCSF faculty member nominated and selected by students from the Graduate Division and the schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy to answer the question: “If you had but one lecture to give, what would you say?” More than 700 students voted to select Campbell.

With plenty of colorful “Campbellisms” sprinkled throughout, the UC San Francisco professor of surgery wove together the threads of the fabric of his life and career in his lecture titled “Lessons Learned From My Journey.”

Work That Has Permeated Life, Career

Andre Campbell talks during the Last Lecture
Andre Campbell, MD, talks during the Last Lecture about being a minority student at UCSF in 1985. The underlying theme of his lecture was the importance of social justice and diversity. Photo by Susan Merrell

In 1985, as Campbell was graduating from UCSF School of Medicine, the UCSF Alumni Magazine interviewed him and asked him about how he felt to be a minority student. “My response was: ‘UCSF was well known for its record on recruiting minorities; I just hope they keep working hard to stay in the position they have had in the past,’” Campbell had replied at the time, foreshadowing a theme that has permeated his life and career.

Campbell eventually returned to his home state of New York for an internal medicine residency at Columbia University, and after completing an entire residency in internal medicine, he finally decided that he was a surgeon at heart and entered a surgical residency and then a surgical critical care fellowship at Columbia University Medical Center.

A photo that Campbell showed of his third-year internal medicine residency class made a profound statement. He pointed out that “when you look at the picture one thing that stands out is that I was the only black resident in the picture.” He was determined to help increase diversity in the program.

Set on the Road Toward Medicine

The roots of Campbell’s push for diversity and social change stretch back to his youth. “I started marching in protest lines against budget cuts from a young age,” he said of his grade-school years in Queens, N.Y. “It was a turbulent time with rioting, protest marches, and the civil rights movement was in its infancy when I was growing up.”

Andre Campbell shakes hands with his son Andre Campbell Jr. after delivering the Last Lecture
Andre Campbell, (left) MD, shares a moment with his son Andre Capmbell Jr. after delivering the 2016 Last Lecture in Cole Hall. Photo by Susan Merrell

That background and a firm rooting in the importance of education set Campbell on road toward medicine. Neither of Campbell’s parents were high school graduates, but he said his mother in particular gave him a firm understanding that it was imperative to excel academically. “I would bring home pretty good grades and my mother would give me ‘the eye’ that meant ‘you know you could do better,’ even if I was the highest performer on the exam,” he said. “I quickly got the message and made sure I did the best I could on everything I worked on at school.”

Many teachers helped Campbell get excited about school at a young age, including a teacher who ignited his passion regarding science that started him down the road to medicine – at the age of 13.

Several minority-focused programs benefited Campbell on his pathway to Harvard University and medical school at UCSF. These programs not only provided inspiration but also lifelong support in the form of the friendships he forged. One was the Premedical Research and Education Program (PREP), created in 1968 in an effort to expand the pool of under-represented minority physicians. “We essentially were all nerds and have supported each other through college, medical school training and life,” Campbell said.

Diversity Accomplishments at UCSF

Campbell did note with optimism some of the recent accomplishments at UCSF, including leadership forging ahead on multiple fronts to improve the culture and climate for diversity, and UCSF medical students launching the “White Coats for Black Lives” movement. “It put the spotlight on injustices that continue and on the issue of health disparities in medicine,” he said.

Throughout his lecture, Campbell remained future-focused. He ended with advice to the newly minted doctors.

“Your journey will be unique and with many ups and downs. Keep focused on your goals even when it is hard. It is your resiliency that will dictate how far you go with your life,” he said.

Be open to adventure as you move forward in your career.

“Twenty-three years ago my wife and I came out for a California adventure, and we still have chapters to write,” he concluded. “I am not sure what the next phase will be, so I continue to ask myself what I will be when I grow up.”

For more campus news and resources, visit Pulse of UCSF.