Feb. 23, 2023
Kelechi C. Ogbonna on health, medicine and becoming the first African American dean of the VCU School of Pharmacy
Ogbonna, who was named dean in December and joined the faculty in 2012, said “health care is at a pivotal juncture.” He said his efforts as dean will include “a hyperfocus” on student success.
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Kelechi C. Ogbonna, Pharm.D., was named dean of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy in December 2022. He joined the faculty in 2012, rising to the position of associate dean for student services and recruitment at the school and serving as interim dean when Joseph T. DiPiro, Pharm.D., stepped aside as dean in June 2022. The school’s Pharm.D. program was reaccredited in early 2023 for eight years.
In an interview, Ogbonna reflected on the path that brought him to his new position and some of the biggest challenges and opportunities that VCU and the School of Pharmacy face today.
What started you on your path to pharmacy?
I'm the son of two educators, so they have nothing to do with health care whatsoever. My family is from Nigeria. My parents came over at a very early age and wanted to provide a better life for us — my sisters and I — as a family. I distinctly remember two occasions where my grandparents were able to visit us here in the States.
In one of those visits my grandfather required medical attention and had a fairly significant adverse event while hospitalized, and it was medication-related. I said to myself very early on that I wanted to be in a position to advocate and to assist and help and be that medication expert that might have prevented that adverse event for my grandfather. That launched me into my career trajectory as we see it now.
Did you know what happened at the time?
Not at the time. We knew only that my grandfather went in for a routine procedure and there were complications — acute kidney failure. It wasn't until well after the fact that those complications were associated with medication. His condition eventually resolved, but it was a medication that essentially shouldn't have been used for my grandfather. Had he had a pharmacist on the team, I'd like to think that that might have been avoided or at least in some way mitigated.
From that point on, it created this interest in how medications can cause great benefit but also cause great harm. Folks who are charged with providing those medications bear a great deal of responsibility.
You are the first African American to lead a school that can trace some of its founders back to the Confederacy. I know this is something you have thought about. What lessons do you draw from it?
That change is possible. I think it speaks to why I'm still here at VCU and why I chose VCU in the first place. I always say that VCU is a perfectly imperfect institution, constantly striving to do the right thing. With our history, we have an opportunity to think critically about our position within the community, our position within health care.
It's not lost on me the significance of my appointment, knowing that only about 65 years ago we had the first African American graduate from our Pharm.D. program. To be sitting in this chair right now, leading the school, shows you that change is possible. We still have work to do, but we're well on our way of making sure that everyone has access, both to education and health care, and we'll play a significant role in that.
Another distinctive aspect: At 36, you’re officially a millennial.
Any advice you can give to other people in your position and in your age group, or other professionals who might be interested in achieving some of the successes that you've seen?
It's a great question, and one that I don't often contemplate. I think that's because throughout my career I've focused on impact and really caring about what I'm doing.
If I look back to when I first arrived in 2012 to VCU, I came because there was an opportunity to provide care in the community to a population that often didn't have access. It wasn't so much about the title or the role. It was, “Wow, there's a tremendous opportunity to partner with the community and provide better care.”
When I took on the associate dean role for admission and student services, it was the same: Here's an opportunity to think differently about how we recruit, who we recruit, and then help them make it to the finish line in a supportive, thoughtful and intentional way. Even now as dean, I see the same opportunity to have an impact and to think a little bit differently about what is the status quo.
Back to your question, I think no matter your age, frankly, if you think about impact and less about the role, you often find that there are opportunities that come knocking. I feel like I've been fortunate in that way.
That’s a good segue to what you are doing now. Why did you, and do you, want to lead the School of Pharmacy?
Health care is at such a pivotal juncture for so many different reasons. One, thinking critically about representation and patients being able to see themselves in their care team. Two, thinking critically about access and who gets health care — and when and how and why. And three, our educational model needs to better lend itself to how health care is evolving. The opportunity to provide better patient access, to provide students with the opportunity to understand what health care can provide, and then, most importantly, train clinicians that are not only clinically sound, but also really aware of health disparities and patient populations. For example, how our health care system can provide advantages and disadvantages depending on who you are, where you come from and your means and resources. Having a clinician who is aware of all those pieces ultimately leads to better outcomes, better care and a better health care system overall.
Generally speaking, what can we expect at the school under your leadership?
I think we can expect a hyperfocus on student success and thinking about student success in its totality. Often we think about academics and academic achievement. And, partly because of my clinical background and being really focused on Medicare and Medicaid patients, we always talk about social determinants of health. Along the same lines, I think about social determinants of academic success. What are all the barriers that are in place? What are the paths for students to truly achieve and ultimately see out their goals and their career aspirations? Thinking of student success more holistically and thinking critically about how we help students not only to work their way through the program, but also how we can help students who may have never heard about health care or pharmacy before. How do we prepare them in a way that lets them work through our program and be those clinicians that we expect to see out of our VCU graduates?
When you say holistic, what are you thinking of?
By holistic, I mean when you have a student and you're thinking critically about how students have navigated graduate education previously. My focus is getting students from all different walks of life. In doing that, you have to be really thoughtful and mindful of the supports and resources and barriers that students might face. That means creating systems that can help students navigate difficult circumstances. It means creating systems that help students that need additional resources or support or tutoring. It means helping students make connections and network beyond the school so that they can end up in the positions that they desire most. That's what I mean by holistic student success: not just thinking about academic progression but thinking about academic progression and all the things that feed into it.
In your view, what is the School of Pharmacy particularly good at compared to others?
There are four areas that I'm going to consistently emphasize, and that’s because I think they're incredible strengths of the school.
One is our sense of community. When students, faculty or staff come to the school, they truly feel like they belong. I think we can lean into that.
Second is our research excellence. We punch above our weight in many respects. We have phenomenal researchers that are in the building that are contributing to a number of initiatives here at VCU, nationally as well as internationally.
Third, entrepreneurship and innovation — we have an opportunity to leverage our expertise to help alumni continue their life-long learning journey as they transition from one setting to another. We can do this by offering new programs, certificates and microcredentials. While generating new resources for the school, we better serve our graduates and the community around us.
A fourth thing that truly sets us apart from other schools is our commitment to student success — the way in which our faculty provide mentorship to students is truly second to none. Students, when they come to VCU, don't simply have a faculty member who tells them to go to chapter two, page 10 and learn about this case or read about this research trial. They have folks who are on the front lines, who are doing the work or creating the new research area. Telling that story, providing that narrative for students to come is going to be really important.
What can we do better?
I think we need to really evaluate where higher education is right now. Students who are entering the pipeline, if you will, or the pathway, are thinking about how to get from point A to point B in the quickest means possible. They're thinking about the overall cost of their education and what will be the return on their investment. I think we need to do a better job of thinking critically about who our audience is and how do we support them and get them into the program and get them interested. But more importantly, how they are going to be fiscally solvent and fulfilled when they get to the end of that journey.
We also are actively contemplating how to help our graduates that are already out in the setting, those folks who want to transition from one field to another. Continuing education is another thing that I think we can emphasize and do differently. We can be of support to pharmacists who are thinking about transitioning to another setting or sector. We have that expertise in-house. I think that's going to be really important.
Finally, to take us back to where we started, what are some lessons from your upbringing that you carry with you?
There are so many things that come from my childhood that resonate even to this day. I think the biggest lesson that my mother and father really instilled was that limits are only those things that you place on yourself.
Maybe this ties back to everything we've talked about, from the history and the significance of this appointment to the roles that I've had. I've never entered an opportunity and limited myself. Limits are often things that other folks put in your way, and I've had a tendency to ignore those things and just continue pushing forward. I think that's served me incredibly well in everything that I've done.
Then surrounding yourself with really good people and thinking critically about mentorship, and if there's a path that you see that someone else has taken, never hesitating to ask them for tips and tricks along the way. Those two things I think have served me incredibly well.
Your personal style is active and upbeat, even in difficult situations. What keeps you energized?
Throughout my time here at VCU, there are two pivotal activities that I've been involved in that exemplify why I love what I do.
One relates to admissions — making the call to students after they've interviewed to say they've been accepted to VCU. There's nothing like it, to be able to capture the joy of that moment when you let a student know that your career aspirations and your opportunity to go to pharmacy school has been realized and here I am telling you about that. The range of emotions that come with that is phenomenal.
The second is reading names at graduation. The entry to and exit from the school have been the things that I focus on. Really seeing other folks achieve what they set out to achieve, there's nothing like it. I think that's what drives me and gets me really excited.
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