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Creating a pathway to leadership

Paula Song, Ph.D., will become the first woman of color to serve as interim dean for the VCU College of Health Professions in July.

Paula Song smiling Paula Song, Ph.D., joined VCU in 2020 and currently serves as the Richard M. Bracken Chair and professor of health administration in the College of Health Professions. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Malorie Burkett

Creating space at the table for people who oftentimes are left out is something Paula Song, Ph.D., has made a priority since finding her way into leadership roles.

Her intentionality to include diverse perspectives in health administration education and research has grown the master’s program at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Health Professions, making it a household name in national rankings.

Song says she believes that bringing in people who understand and reflect the communities for which they serve enriches the environment.

“If you do not have a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, you are inherently limiting the scope of ideas and understanding, which will ultimately result in less effective strategies and policies than you may have intended,” said Song, the current Richard M. Bracken chair and professor of the Department of Health Administration in the College of Health Professions. “I think this is true in any organization, and we have to be intentional about bringing people who have different perspectives and experiences to the table to help inform our understanding.”

Growing up in a family of Korean immigrants to the United States, Song saw the support her parents had for each other and their careers, empowering their children to seek opportunities to pursue their dreams in higher education. As the interim dean of VCU College of Health Professions, Song hopes to continue empowering departments and programs to be able to do what they do best and help them realize their full potential by embodying the excellence in diversity of their students and faculty.

Song will assume the role beginning July 1, becoming the first woman of color to serve as interim dean of the school since its founding in 1969. She succeeds Susan Parish, who was named president of Mercy College in New York.

Two older adults stand next to each other smiling.

Paula Song’s interest in health care leadership was paved with a number of significant influences along the way, including her proud Korean heritage. Her mother, Dr. Kim Song, was an anesthesiologist and her father, Dr. Young-dahl Song, was a college political science professor. (Contributed Photo) 

Early influences

Growing up in Eastern North Carolina with a mother who was an anesthesiologist, and a father who was a college professor of political science, led to a natural familiarity of the health care and academic spheres for Song.

The pathway to Song’s interest in health care leadership was paved with a number of significant influences along the way, including her proud Korean heritage. Song’s mother attended medical school in Korea, then came to the United States to complete an internship and residency in anesthesiology. Her parents met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when Song’s father was finishing his doctoral studies in political science. A faculty position at East Carolina University led the couple to establishing their careers and building their family in Greenville, North Carolina.

“I don't think that they thought they would end up being there for the rest of their lives, as they planned to eventually return to Korea, but the political climate was unstable,” Song said.

Instead, the couple ended up staying in Greenville. Song’s mother then obtained her medical licensure, and joined an anesthesiology practice where she was the only woman physician in the group, and one of the first women physicians to practice at Pitt County Memorial Hospital – now known as ECU Health.

“I think it was really important to my mom as a female physician, and for my dad who was very supportive of her in that role,” Song said. “She literally never missed a day of work, because she really felt like she needed to show up. I think that was a big piece of the influence of having a working mother who was very dedicated to health care, and kind of a pioneer in her own way. This was particularly true for her as a professional, and also as a member of a community with very little presence with respect to Asian families.”

Song says her family was one of just a small number of Korean families living in town at the time. In terms of demographics, a majority of Greenville’s population primarily included white and Black families.

A close up photo of women in suits speaking for a presentation.

Paula Song, Ph.D., introduces Carrie Owen Plietz, FACHE, a VCU Master’s in Health Administration 2000 graduate who serves as the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Regional President, to a group of VCU Health Administration students in 2022. (VCU College of Health Professions)

Melding health care and academia influences

Song says she was initially interested in becoming a doctor, but when she got to college, she realized that being a clinical provider was not her calling.

For Song, being in academia felt like a natural fit. She believes her parents’ influences melded to create her own career track. In addition, Song’s sister, who was studying to earn a master's degree in public health at the University of Michigan, suggested Song look into the program as well.

With a continued interest in health care, Song decided to take it from a different approach. She applied and was accepted into the master’s in health administration (MHA) program at Michigan. Afterwards, she worked for a health care organization in New Orleans for several years before returning to Michigan to pursue a Ph.D. degree.

Song was interested in the research side of things and understanding how health care organizations operate, particularly in the area of financial management.

“As I looked into it further, the more it sounded interesting to me, because it covered the health care aspect, while allowing me to maintain a business focus,” Song said. “I started off as someone who thought I might one day run hospitals and became someone who studies hospitals.”

Three people standing in front of a white VCU College of Health professions background at an event.

Stephan Davis, DNP, MHSA, FACHE, FAAN, and Paula Song, Ph.D., standing with health care leader Quint Studer who spoke to VCU health administration students in 2022. Left to right: Davis, Studer and Song. (VCU College of Health Professions)

Reimagining health care

When Song became the chairperson of the MHA program in 2020, it was the height of the pandemic. VCU Health was caring for patients with COVID-19 and the university campus shut down to prevent the spread of the virus.

Despite challenges from virtual learning and pandemic safety measures, Song made purposeful efforts to increase diversity among staff — bringing in leaders who understand and can reflect the communities for which they serve.

At the time, the MHA program was ranked no. 5 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. This year, the VCU College of Health Profession's MHA program was newly ranked no. 3 by U.S. News & World Report. Colleagues like Stephan Davis, D.N.P., interim associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the College of Health Professions, and executive director of Inclusive Leadership Education in the Department of Health Administration, has worked closely with Song since he first came to VCU in 2021.

“Because of Dr. Song’s intentionality, we have been able to launch highly visible initiatives that have made an impact at VCU and nationally,” Davis said. “Since Dr. Song joined the department, we have significantly increased faculty and student diversity and we have enhanced our educational programming to support students and early careerists from historically underrepresented and excluded backgrounds. Aligned with Quest 2028, the university’s strategic plan, these efforts are consistent with our top strategic theme, 'diversity driving excellence.'”

Highlighting how each of us has the ability to make an impact from the work we are doing in our own roles, Song says oftentimes the small moments are what matter the most, as opposed to the big gestures.

“VCU does a really excellent job in terms of prioritizing diversity. It's a journey, and we're all along this journey at different points. What I appreciate so much about highlighting different heritages, is that it helps elevate some of these stories, which again might have an impact on others out there who are thinking about or aspiring to be in academia, health care, leadership or whatever it may be,” Song said. “Bringing awareness of the great things Asian Americans and so many others are doing across the country, and bringing the visibility to the forefront is really impactful. And I have a better appreciation of that now more than I think I probably did earlier in my career.”

This summer, Song will begin serving as interim dean of the College of Health Professions, making her the first woman of color to serve in this role.

“It's a really wonderful thing to see that not only was Dr. Susan Parish the first woman dean, but we will continue to have a woman at the highest level of leadership in our college,” Davis said. “I think that Paula is creating a pathway for other women of color to see themselves in leadership roles. For Paula, the door has been opened, and I think that she's going to make sure that the door remains open for others. She probably will expand the door, because she is very committed to this.”

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