Medical Services in the Student Health and Counseling Center has a new director and Medical Chief of Staff this academic year. Fresno State alumna, Dr. Khampha Thephavong, became the director in early August.
Dr. Thephavong was born in Laos and came to the United States at the age of 9. She graduated with a bachelor’s in nursing from Fresno State in 1996. She returned to finish her requirements for medical school admission in 1998 and went on to study medicine at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine until 2005.
“I have always wanted to be a physician, but growing up in a neighborhood and schools where mentors and role models were scarce to non-existent, I did not learn the path to medical school.” Dr. Thephavong said this made her journey for preparing for medical school very challenging. She did not know where to start.
She added, “The only interesting careers I knew about at that time was nursing and teaching. However, after completing nursing school and working fulltime as a registered nurse for a year, I realized I still had a deep interest in medicine. I love science and also knew there was a great need for comprehensive and compassionate medical care, especially in underserved communities.”
Finding mentors who could guide and support her in the journey to medical school was challenging because her family had no ties to any medical professional. However, she soon began volunteering as a tutor at Stone Soup in “Sin City” of Fresno, and that was when she began making connections with local educators who became her mentors that helped and supported her.
Going to Ohio was the first time she left home in California. The experience not only provided her with a medical education, but exposed her to a different kind of life, and made her very independent. From being away from home, she was challenged to make new friends and to blend in with people from all walks of life.
“I was able to become friends with groups of people that I never had the chance to meet before. Living in Fresno in a neighborhood filled with poverty and crime, I was unexposed to families and individuals who went to professional schools or even to college. When I entered medical school, I met many ambitious and thriving individuals who came from successful backgrounds.”
Despite receiving a medical residency offer in Ohio, Dr. Thephavong chose to return to Fresno to do her residency. She did her training in internal medicine and specialized in inpatient care, taking care of critically ill patients who required hospitalization. After completing residency, she opened up a medical clinic to serve the underserved population. However, due to low reimbursement rate from medi-cal, the medical clinic was not sustainable.
“Many people out in the community are struggling with poverty, lack of medical services, and therefore are in great need of good medical care. I would love to work with the low income population whose needs are greatest, but due to the low medical insurance reimbursement rate, I was not able to sustain the medical clinic which I founded”.
She wanted to work at Fresno State upon finishing her residency, but due to budget restraints at Fresno State during that time, she took up a job at the Veteran’s Hospital instead. Recently, she was hired at the Student Health and Counseling Center which has been her long time goal. Being here on campus, she hopes to connect with students who are interested in going into the health professions. Dr. Thephavong expressed that there is potential for many Southeast Asians and underserved community members to go into the practice of medicine, but they are not well prepared since they have limited resources and guidance. Many of these students do not go to the best schools nor come from the best socioeconomic backgrounds, but they do have good work ethnic and are willing to work hard, which will enable them to become whatever they want to be.
“It is easy to give up on our dreams especially if we have other challenges in our lives; however, if we know what we want and want it bad enough, there is always a way to achieve that,” she said. She also added, “if students are not getting the best grades needed to get accepted into professional schools, they have to find ways to improve their grades such as through tutoring, meeting with professors who can discuss subjects with them one on one, or find a study group who can further help them understand the subject at hand. As important, students need to find support and guidance from counselors or professors that they connect with.”
She believes Fresno State is heading in the right direction in hiring counselors who can relate to the student population. The area that Fresno State can improve on is hiring at least one or two counselors of Lao or Cambodian background who can reach out to support Lao-Americans and Cambodian American students since these are the groups that she found to have limited to no outreach to, and therefore are at high risk of failing out of the university.
Dr. Thephavong believes that every student has the potential to excel and succeed. However, without the proper guidance and resources, achievement cannot be realized. She is hopeful that Fresno State will continue to further their efforts in hiring professors, counselors and staff who not only reflect the diversity of the students, but who also truly cares about the well-being of the students. By having staff who share common experiences and backgrounds as their students, students will be more likely to reach out for help and therefore will do better academically.
By investing in our students, we are investing in the future of our society and nation. The more students we help to succeed and achieve, the better off our nation and our world will be. She is grateful to be a part of this great institution of Fresno State and to have the opportunity to play a role in the success of students.