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O’Leary Receives MLK Social Justice Award

Shawn O’Leary, director of the Office for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, has received the Holly Fell Sateia Award, one of four Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Awards given this year as part of the Dartmouth community’s month-long celebration honoring the life and legacy of the civil rights leader.

The 2017 Social Justice Awards winners were honored at a panel discussion event entitled Conversations with Changemakers held on Thursday, January 26 at Moore Hall’s Filene Auditorium.

The Holly Fell Sateia Award, established in 2011 by former Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim and Provost Carol Folt, honors the legacy of Holly Fell Sateia MALS’82, vice president for institutional diversity and equity, emerita, and to recognize diversity as a vibrant part of the Dartmouth mission. This award “pays tribute to a faculty or staff member at Dartmouth who is an enthusiastic and effective leader in advancing diversity and community.”

Shawn O'Leary is congratulated by Evelynn Ellis (left), Dartmouth's Vice President for Institutional Diversity & Equity, and Gail Gentes (right), wife of President Phil Hanlon. (photo by Eli Burakian D'00)

“Shawn has dedicated over two decades of his life supporting and advocating for our future health care leaders,” says Stephanie White, MD, Geisel Diversity Liaison for Student/Resident Advising. “His tireless dedication to the students at Geisel is that glue that ensures our students thrive, feel included, and go on to make significant impacts in communities across the country.

“The fortunate part for us is that despite his longevity in the field of social justice, he continues to have a true passion and commitment for continuing to fight for health equity,” White says. “We have many great faculty members at Geisel and considering some of life's greatest lessons are discovered outside the classroom, Shawn is among the best.”

Serving in his leadership role at Geisel since 2002, O’Leary oversees the medical school’s diversity programs and is dedicated to Geisel’s mission of promoting an environment of unity and respect. He serves as academic advisor to the Urban and Rural Health Scholars Programs, as well as an advisor to minority students and student groups, and works to ensure the success and retention of all minority students, faculty, and staff.

O’Leary recently started work on the Learning Collaborative on Culture, a project aimed at increasing diversity in health professions schools across the state. He was also chosen by medical students for induction into the Gold Humanism in Medicine Honor Society for Outstanding Mentorship.

“I regard Shawn as the Geisel faculty’s behind-the-scenes MVP,” says Spencer McFarlane, JD, a second-year Geisel student in the Urban Health Scholars program.

“After traveling with him last summer to Cleveland, Bethesda, and New York City for medical school recruitment fairs, I came to realize just how responsible he is for the diverse student body we have at Geisel,” McFarlane says. “He lays the groundwork necessary for recruiting the best and the brightest minority candidates. And his door is always open for students to drop in practically anytime, often times lending an ear to students in need of a safe space."

“Dartmouth LMSA (Latino Medical Student Association) has had tremendous success thanks to the environment of inclusivity Shawn has established at Geisel,” says second-year Geisel student Freddy Vazquez, co-director elect of LMSA-Northeast.

“Our motivation stems from his encouragement and support,” says Vazquez. “As a result, Dartmouth is being represented on the executive level for the first time in the 40-year history of LMSA. Shawn is testament to the importance of inclusivity and diversity. There is no doubt Geisel's legacy will continue to flourish with Shawn O'Leary standing behind its students.”

Before coming to Dartmouth, O’Leary served as assistant director of the Wabanaki Native American Center at the University of Maine. Prior to that, O’Leary—who is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe in Northern Minnesota where for generations his family has harvested wild rice—worked in his home state at the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in Duluth.

O’Leary was chair of the Indians into Medicine advisory board and served as liaison between the UM medical school and 34 reservation communities across four states. He also worked to promote the educational needs of first-generation American Indian students through the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s Education Talent Search Program.

Geisel students in Minneapolis with Shawn O'Leary (upper right) at the start of their alternative spring break experience in March, 2014.

O’Leary’s passions include his family, his work, and hockey—he has coached more than 40 teams at different levels over the years in Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, and Canada.

It was through hockey that Leslie Henderson, PhD, dean of faculty affairs and associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Geisel, first got to know O’Leary about a decade ago. “In many ways, his work coaching under some often tough circumstances was a great analogy for the work that Shawn has done for Geisel/Dartmouth and a very broad community that extends outward from us,” says Henderson.

“What I saw in Shawn’s coaching, and what I see in his day-to-day ‘real job’ work, is an amazing ability to advance the lives of those who face the highest obstacles, under circumstances that can be volatile, and yet do so in a way that is at the same time both calming and impassioned—no mean feat,” she says.

Over the past few years, she has gotten to know him even better through the Geisel Diversity Council and the medical school’s work in diversity, inclusion, and community engagement. “These interactions have only solidified my first thoughts: that Shawn would be the very last person on the planet to take credit for any of the many amazing things he has done, and that all of us are infinitely better by the fact that he has selflessly done them,” says Henderson.

True to form, O’Leary is quick to deflect the praise that accompanies this distinguished award. “This isn’t so much about me as it is about the people who’ve come before me, from the original group of students who petitioned to establish this office to our current students who put their heart and soul into our programs and activities,” he says. “To me, this award is a celebration of all we’ve done and continue to do together.”

When asked what he has been most proud of during his tenure at Dartmouth, O’Leary says: “I’ve seen a culture shift to a higher level of inclusiveness and acceptability of differences that has allowed us to diversify our student body—for the past four years, our incoming classes have been comprised of 25 percent minority students, almost twice the national average of all medical schools. That’s been very exciting to see.”

Established by Dartmouth College, the Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Awards recognize members of the Dartmouth and Upper Valley community who have contributed significantly to social justice, peace, civil rights, education, public health, or environmental justice.

The awards are co-sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, the William Jewett Tucker Center, the Dartmouth Center for Service, and Geisel’s Office for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement.