Physician and longtime ASU office director who treated refugee women takes on new expanded role at UMass

The announcement that Dr. Crista Johnson-Agbakwu was leaving Arizona State University was — as you might expect when it is about someone held in such high esteem by her colleagues — made “with somewhat mixed emotions, but mostly great excitement.”

Sabrina Oesterle, director of the School of Social Work-based Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center (SIRC), recently wrote those words to school faculty about Johnson-Agbakwu, a physician who since 2008 has served as founding director of SIRC’s Office of Refugee Health and as founding director of Valleywise Health’s Refugee Women’s Health Clinic.

Johnson-Agbakwu is the new executive director of the inaugural Collaborative in Health Equity at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School in Worcester. She began her new duties Feb. 1, and plans to move from Phoenix to Massachusetts in June.

“This is an incredibly amazing and important opportunity that will take Dr. Johnson-Agbakwu’s work to the next level,” Oesterle wrote. “Her new role will be an institution-spanning leadership role to center health equity throughout the entire health enterprise in terms of innovations in patient care, research, training/education and community-partnered engagement and embeddedness.”

Johnson-Agbakwu said that in her new role she will oversee health equity matters for UMass Chan’s three schools — medical, nursing and graduate — as well as the university hospital and its regional health care partners, community stakeholders and global health initiatives.

She said she needed the 15 years she spent at ASU “to hone my craft, be in the weeds, building community partnerships, learning how to build trust, teach trainees, all using the precise skills, now on a much bigger playing field. ... I’ve just stepped from one platform to an entirely different, new one.”

‘With a team you can move mountains’

She came to ASU “brand-spanking new out of two fellowships,” but encountered strong support from a team of colleagues who had a shared vision and understanding of what was possible, she said.

“With a team you can move mountains, and I’m blessed to have had that kind of team with the heart and the soul and the dedication,” she said.

Johnson-Agbakwu said, already, the duties at her new position are challenging.

“I’m literally drinking from the fire hose right now — and I haven’t even set foot there,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a huge new platform I will have to truly effect change, to advance change for underserved people of color. I will have the role to create pathways to not just recruiting underrepresented learners and faculty, but ensuring the graduation of these scholars, not merely to help them survive but to thrive.”

Johnson-Agbakwu said what she accomplishes in her new position will be based on a moral responsibility she takes seriously “as a woman of color who has dealt with bias not only in society but in the academy and medicine.”

It’s not a complete goodbye, she said, as she is co-principal investigator on two grants received while at ASU that she will see through to completion.

‘I was embraced with open arms’

“What I really value from my time at ASU is that collaborative spirit. When I came on in 2008 as a clinician, actually the first clinician to join SIRC, and the unique role in my duality as a physician as well as a researcher,” she said. “I was bringing a unique skill set in not only minority populations, but broadly regarding all new arrivals. I brought something very unique, and was embraced with open arms.”

Johnson-Agbakwu said she often describes her ASU work as a trifecta of community engagement/partnership; research, both community-driven and through leadership; and clinical care. All of these components combined to profoundly impact learners she taught and worked with, she said.

“I’ve been privileged to have such legions of learners and be a part of inspiring them as they pursue their careers, wherever they might go, that they would take away important skills. I’m overwhelmed when I get that kind of feedback, even years down the road, about the impact it’s had on their lives,” she said. “You think about how you set an example and lead by example, setting a very high bar to uplift communities of color, especially those that have been marginalized.”

Reflecting on what she hopes her students gained, Johnson-Agbakwu cited “cultural humility, advocacy for those without a voice and those who have pursued similar careers (in the health professions). You say, wow, you passed the baton, and they are running with it.”

Oesterle said she and her colleagues are very proud of Johnson-Agbakwu and wholeheartedly congratulate her.

“We will miss her as an integral partner of our SIRC team, but we also know that our work together will continue,” Oesterle wrote.

Johnson-Agbakwu said she will miss the camaraderie at ASU, where she found not merely lifelong colleagues, but lifelong friends.

“The people I have met are people for whom I have a deep bond with,” said Johnson-Agbakwu, who states she will return often to visit. “This isn’t the end, it’s just the transition, and we will always remain close.”        

Mark J. Scarp