Joycelyn Elders, M.D., Gives Address at Event Honoring UAMS’ Phenomenal Women

By Chris Carmody

This year’s Phenomenal Women ceremony, organized by the UAMS Division for Academic Pathways and Workforce Partnerships, celebrated female employees who reflect UAMS’ core values, advocate for change and address injustices. UAMS holds the event each March to commemorate National Women’s History Month.

Elders, a 1960 graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Medicine (now known as the UAMS College of Medicine), spoke on the topic of “Women who advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion.” She said she read every word of the nomination letters for this year’s 28 Phenomenal Women honorees, captivated by their dedication to improving the lives of others.

“As I started reading about all of you, I was so impressed about the things you’re doing to make a difference,” she said.

Elders said she’s proud of the many women who hold leadership positions at UAMS, noting that the health care field has come a long way from the days when women in medicine were viewed as assistants instead of being respected for their abilities.

“We’ve still got a long way to go, but I want to thank you for working hard to make sure we get there,” she said.

Elders served in a variety of leadership roles during her career in public health. She joined UAMS’ pediatric faculty in the 1960s and later served as director of the Arkansas Department of Health from 1987-93. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her as U.S. surgeon general, making her the first Black American and the second woman to serve in that role.

Joycelyn Elders and her husband, Oliver, watch one of the performances during the ceremony.

Joycelyn Elders and her husband, Oliver, watch one of the performances during the ceremony.Image by Bryan Clifton

She was inspired to pursue a career in health care after attending a lecture by Edith Irby Jones, M.D., who enrolled at UAMS in 1948 and became the first Black student to attend a previously all-white medical college in the South. Elders said the lecture marked the first time in her life that she’d seen a doctor, adding that she never could have dreamed of one day becoming surgeon general.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said.

Elders said this experience highlighted the importance of having role models and mentors. She encouraged UAMS’ female employees to lead with “determined boldness,” knowing that their contributions will influence the next generation of students and colleagues.

“When you’ve climbed the ladder of success, the only way you’ll be graded is on your ability to keep that ladder in place for the rest,” she said.

Elders concluded her speech by bringing her husband, Oliver Elders, onstage so he could deliver a poem for the attendees. He recounted the story of how he met his wife more than 60 years ago, when she was conducting physical examinations for a high school basketball team that he was coaching.

Describing their decades-long marriage, he said, “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and if I had to do it over again, I’d do it exactly the same way.”

Oliver Elders wasn’t the only performer to take the stage during the ceremony. Marcus Murphy, biomedical equipment technician in the UAMS Office of Academic Services, performed a song to honor UAMS’ female employees. And Brianna Long, a fourth-year student in the College of Medicine, recited the Maya Angelou poem “Phenomenal Woman.”

Each of this year’s honorees received an award handed out by Sharanda Williams, assistant dean for student affairs in the College of Medicine, and Diane Jarrett, Ed.D., director of education in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. Michelle Krause, M.D., MPH, senior vice chancellor for UAMS Health and chief executive officer for UAMS Medical Center, congratulated those who were named as Phenomenal Women, an honor that she received in 2017.

The 2024 Phenomenal Women are:

Aline Andres, Ph.D., R.D. Becky Latch, M.D.
Sarah Assem, M.D. Chelsea Mathews, M.D.
Michaela Beard Katherine Montoya, M.D.
Williamina (Wana) Bing Rachel Ott
Carla Brown, M.D. Sarah Parker, MLS
Sonia Bunyard, MSN, RN Rosalyn Perkins, MNSc, APRN
Ava Coleman Becca Perin, M.D.
Angela Comet, MLS Joy Peppers, M.Ed.
Brandi Duncan, MNSc Jessica Presley, MPP
Regina Gibson, Ph.D., RN Joni Pharis
Lauren Haggard-Duff, Ph.D., RN Marsha Rood
Fatera Herd, MPH Carolina Schinke, M.D.
Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D. Taren M. Swindle, Ph.D.
Julie Joyce, J.D. Thao Vu, MLS
Honorees gather for a group photo after the Phenomenal Women ceremony.

Honorees gather for a group photo after the Phenomenal Women ceremony.Image by Bryan Clifton