MUSC celebrates 2020 awardees, 25 years of fostering diversity, inclusion

June 29, 2020
2020 award winner Natalie Johnson, second from right, is joined by College of Medicine Dean Ray DuBois, Sherrie Nesbitt, Dr. Rose Delores Gibbs, Dr. Michael de Arellano and Dr. James Tolley at a previous Black History Program.

For 25 years, MUSC has recognized excellence with the annual Earl B. Higgins Achievement in Diversity Award. Each year, individuals are selected for their service and commitment to championing MUSC’s values of respect, collaboration, integrity and inclusion. Even in this unprecedented year, with the coronavirus pandemic and closure of campus activities, the awards prevailed. One difference this year, however, is the traditional April ceremony that celebrates the recipients was postponed to a later date. 

The 2020 Earl B. Higgins Diversity Award winners in the University, MUSC Health and Student categories include, respectively, Natalie Johnson, associate dean for diversity affairs, College of Medicine; Tim Brendle, DNP, R.N., MUSC Health chief perioperative operations officer; and Priscilla Burgess, Pharm.D., College of Pharmacy Class of 2020 graduate. 

Created in 1996, this award was established as a tribute to Earl B. Higgins, Ed.D., who served as director of MUSC Affirmative Action and Minority Affairs. The award celebrates individuals who, like Higgins, demonstrate leadership by promoting diversity, inclusion and other significant values that promote equity and equality. Higgins worked toward the recruitment of diverse students, faculty and staff to create an inclusive campus environment. The Earl B. Higgins Award honors those following in his footsteps.

Willette Burnham-Williams, Ph.D., the university’s chief diversity officer, recognized qualities of leadership, collaboration, inclusion and engagement in this year’s class of Earl B. Higgins Leadership in Diversity Award winners.

“As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Earl B. Higgins Leadership in Diversity awards, we recognize this year’s award recipients as exemplary models of what leadership in diversity looks like. I am proud to be a part of the annual recognition of individual and collective contributions of MUSC community members. The legacy and trailblazing work of Dr. Earl B. Higgins live on through their work,” she said. 

The University Leadership Award recipient is Natalie Johnson, associate dean for Diversity Affairs-Group on Diversity Affairs in the College of Medicine. In her 19-year career at MUSC, Johnson has contributed to promoting and advancing strategic diversity and inclusion initiatives through her leadership and commitment and in the development and oversight of the college’s recruitment and retention programs and diversity programs supporting students, faculty and staff that are underrepresented in medicine. Among these are the Post-baccalaureate Reapplication Program (PREP) and Mentoring Ensures Medical School Success (MEMS) programs, where she provides mentorship to URM students to help to create more inclusive environments for students. She also collaborates with various units within the College of Medicine education core to support URM student retention programs and include individual counseling for students. She also facilitates sessions that can lead to academic success for these students.

Johnson is a member of the college’s admission committee; the Education, Diversity, Admissions and Students Affairs Council; and the MUSC Diversity Officer Council. She serves as a representative on the Association of American Medical College’s Group on Diversity Inclusion Committee. 

“It’s such an honor and privilege to be a recipient of this prestigious award. We have come a long way in the area of diversity, but it is obvious that we have more work ahead of us, especially in our fight against systemic racism,” said Johnson. “This work is not just the responsibility of diversity officers, or underrepresented minorities, everyone must see the need for change and become champions in making a change. It is critical that all individuals take responsibility for this change and for the leadership of organizations to support the change. I am thankful that I am able to contribute to diversifying MUSC and health care.”

Tim Brendle – MUSC Health

The MUSC Health Leadership Award recipient, Tim Brendle, DNP, R.N., is the MUHA chief perioperative operations officer. With more than 26 years of perioperative experience and 14 years of perioperative-operational leadership, Brendle has served various roles while at MUSC, including nurse manager, clinical director, director of the Main OR and associate chief nursing officer for perioperative services.

Launching his career at MUSC as a weekend staff and charge nurse, Brendle has been passionate about diversity and inclusion and remains committed to helping to build MUSC as an inclusive organization. He has led in developing plans to increase a more diverse nursing workforce by working with the MUSC Health diversity and inclusion team and nursing leadership to recruit and retain more Asian nurses. He also worked with MUHA Human Resources and nursing departments to establish pipeline career programs at South Carolina’s historically black colleges and universities as well as at Tri-county middle and high schools. 

As part of his doctoral research in nursing practice, Brendle committed his time to focusing on improving outcomes for LGBTQ patients by helping clinicians understand disparities in care that this patient population experiences. He also brought awareness and education into MUSC Health’s work environment by providing transgender health training and education to leadership, physicians, nurses, social workers and members of the health care team. Brendle is also a popular speaker whose lecture topics range from diversity, unconscious bias, LGBTQ cultural competence to health care disparities.

“I’m so appreciative for the recognition from the Earl B. Higgins leadership committee for my work with diversity and inclusion,” said Brendle. “Given recent events, it’s more important than ever that we understand, accept, respect and value each other’s differences. Each of us are unique in our own special way, and this uniqueness is what makes us all stronger. Imagine how different the world would be if we all would embrace our differences instead of fearing and alienating them. Let me close with a quote from Harvey Milk: ‘All men are created equal. No matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about.’”

Priscilla Burgess – Student Award

The Student Leadership Award recipient, Priscilla D. Burgess, Pharm.D., is a Class of 2020 College of Pharmacy graduate. In the four years she has been at MUSC, Burgess has played an active role within the College of Pharmacy, other areas of MUSC and greater Charleston community. She served as a College of Pharmacy student ambassador, mentored underrepresented high school students in the college’s Minorities in Medicine program and participated in the college’s diversity and inclusion committee to help to recruit minorities. In 2018, she and fellow students worked with the dean’s office to establish the college’s first PharmDamentals program –  a daylong experiential visit for minority students interested in a career in pharmacy.  

A natural leader, Burgess served in leadership positions with the Student National Pharmaceutical Association and Phi Lambda Sigma Leadership Society and worked to increase minority recruitment. She participated in programs that would enhance MUSC’s community outreach by organizing events to raise awareness for stroke and heart disease. She was also treasurer of the Multicultural Student Advisory Board, College of Pharmacy treasurer for the Student Government Association and a presidential scholar with the MUSC Dr. Raymond Greenberg Presidential Scholar Program.

Burgess also co-founded and coordinated pharmacy services at the Shifa Clinic to provide compassionate quality medical care to uninsured, indigent adult Lowcountry residents regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or national origin. Working with James Sterrett, Pharm.D., second and third-year pharmacy students provided pharmacy services for this population as well as collaborating with nurse practitioner and physician assistant students by connecting them to key clinical trials that offer primary care and working primarily with Hispanic patient populations. 

“I am so honored to be recognized for my leadership in diversity and inclusion while being a student at MUSC. My goal from my acceptance into the College of Pharmacy was to celebrate and recognize the diversity within the college and to aid in making the university even more inclusive. It is so important that diversity is represented in the health professions in order to be representative of the patients we care for," said Burgess.

About the Author

Cindy Abole