White House Fellowship opens doors, expands minds
White House Fellow reflects on whirlwind year, urges others to apply for prestigious program
By Carolyn Rogers
|Orthopaedic surgeon Michael Suk, MD, JD, MPH, completed his one-year White House Fellowship on Sept. 1, 2004, but it may be a while before he fully processes the experience.
“So much happened this past year to impact my own thinking,” he says. “It’s going to take me some time to digest it all.”
Michael Suk, MD, JD, MPH (right) enjoys a moment in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush.
Given the fact that the 2003/2004 White House Fellows appointment book reads like a “Who’s Who” of world politics, business and media, that’s not surprising.
“In a given week, we may have met with Chief Justice William Rehnquist on Tuesday, had lunch with Vice President Cheney on Wednesday, and met with (National Security Advisor) Condoleezza Rice on Friday,” he says. “That wouldn’t be an unusual week.”
The White House Fellows program is intended to provide gifted and highly motivated young Americans with some first-hand experience in the process of governing the nation, and a sense of personal involvement in the leadership of society. In return, the Fellows are expected to apply what they’ve learned by contributing to the nation as more effective leaders in their respective communities and professions, as well as in the public service arena.
During his12-month fellowship, Dr. Suk worked alongside leaders at the highest levels of government, spearheaded a national public health initiative, went on policy study trips to Turkey, Poland, and Russia to explore issues of global significance, visited military bases and enjoyed dozens of informal, off-the-record meetings with renowned leaders from the worlds of business, the arts, science and technology, media and politics.
“It was an amazing year,” Dr. Suk says. “So many doors are opened to you—your world just expands exponentially. It’s a truly life-changing experience.”
The selection process
Not a bad gig if you can get it. So how did Dr. Suk land this prestigious fellowship?
He earned it. Selection as a White House Fellow is based on a record of remarkable professional achievement early in one’s career, evidence of leadership potential, a proven commitment to public service and the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute successfully at the highest levels of the Federal government.
|Dr. Suk fits the bill. Simultaneously completing his medical degree at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and his law degree/masters in public health at Boston University, he then went on to a residency in orthopaedic surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y., followed by an orthopaedic traumatology fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.||
Dr. Suk meets with U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, MD.
|Dr. Suk is active in the medical profession at state, local and national levels, and was the first Asian American to serve on the American Medical Association’s Board of Trustees. In addition, he has been an active member of the AMA’s Orthopaedic Section Council and a recognized leader in graduate medical education reform. Internationally, working with the World Medical Association, Dr. Suk led the effort to unite nearly 300,000 residents and junior doctors from more than 30 countries, with the goal of fostering understanding between physicians of disparate nations and facilitating volunteerism through medical education.||
During his assignment at the Department of the Interior, Dr. Suk worked with Secretary Gail Norton to bring attention to the role of public lands and water in public health.
Your life’s ambition…in 300 words or less
Even with these impressive credentials, Dr. Suk says he put a great deal of time and thought into completing the White House Fellow application form.
“One of the questions asks you to describe your life’s ambition in 300 words or less,” he says. “I started writing and in no time I’d written a couple thousand words! So the process really forced me to do some soul-searching and get right to the heart of things… I learned a lot about myself just by filling out the application.”
After a rigorous series of interviews, the field of nearly 1,000 applicants was narrowed to just 30 finalists. The finalists were then required to undergo comprehensive background investigations to ensure that they could obtain the security clearance necessary for their fellowship work assignments.
At the end of an intense final weekend of interviews in Washington, D.C., 12 outstanding men and women—including Dr. Suk—were recommended to the President for appointment as White House Fellows.
“It’s like the match program”
To determine their work assignments, Fellows participated in a series of briefings and interviews with Cabinet secretaries and senior White House officials. Fellows typically spend one year working as full-time, paid special assistants to senior White House staff, the vice president, cabinet secretaries and other top-ranking government officials.
“It’s kind of like the match program for residents,” Dr. Suk explains.
Each year, however, many more departments want a fellow than are able to get one.
Dr. Suk found his “match” at the Department of the Interior (DOI), led by Secretary Gale Norton. “People often seem puzzled by this, asking ‘what is an orthopaedic surgeon doing there?’ But it was actually a great fit with my background and my interest in public health,” he explains.
“Get Fit with US” campaign
While at the DOI, Dr. Suk spearheaded a campaign to bring national attention to the role of public lands and waters in the public’s health. The project is part of the president’s larger “HealthierUS” initiative, launched in June 2002 to improve the nation’s fitness and promote a healthy lifestyle alliance between public health and recreation.
The DOI—which manages one-fifth of the land in the United States—is one of several agencies charged with implementing the initiative.
“HealthierUS” is centered around four simple principles: (1) Be physically active every day; (2) Eat a nutritious diet; (3) Get preventive health screenings; and (4) Make healthy choices
“The Department of the Interior was charged with the first principle—‘Be physically active every day,’” Dr. Suk explains. “It became my role to try to establish a program that would promote the use of public lands and water.”
After months of preparation, Secretary Norton and Dr. Suk officially kicked off the DOI’s “America’s Public Lands: Get Fit with US” outdoor recreation campaign at a public media event in St. Paul, Minn. The effort is designed to encourage individuals to use public lands and waters to stay active and healthy while enjoying the outdoors.
Dr. Suk was chosen for this key role not only because he is a physician, but also because of his strong interest in public health and his legal background. As spokesperson for the initiative, he addressed nearly 100 organizations and engaged more than 1,000 leaders in health care, recreation and public health across the nation on the issue. The impact of his efforts has resulted in his continued role with the Department as the Senior Policy Advisor for Health and Recreation to the National Park Service.
While at DOI, Dr. Suk also co-wrote an article with Secretary Norton for the American Journal of Law & Medicine—“America’s Public Lands and Waters: The Gateway to Better Health?” (Vol. 30, no. 2&3, 2004).
“This was particularly interesting in that it was a law review article written by a sitting U.S. Secretary of the Interior,” he adds.
Meeting President Bush
President Bush joined the White House Fellows for three off-the-record meetings throughout the year—in both the Roosevelt Room and the Oval Office. Each time, he overstayed the allotted 40 minutes, spending nearly an hour and a half with the group.
“There are people who would do anything for a minute of the president’s time,” Dr. Suk says. “To have an hour and half of his day was remarkable.”
At the first meeting, “we were all pretty star-struck,” he admits. By the second and third meetings, he and the other Fellows expected that feeling would dissipate, but it didn’t.
“By the third meeting, we realized we were in awe of the man—not the office,” Dr. Suk says.
President Bush isn’t at all what people might expect, he says. “We asked him thoughtful, probing questions and he answered them directly, articulately and with surprising candor… He was impressive.”
One of the biggest, and most pleasant, surprises for Dr. Suk was the quality of his fellow classmates. The 2003-2004 Class of White House Fellows represented a cross-section of professions including academia, business, health care, law, non-profits, and three branches of the military.
“My classmates were just outstanding, high-caliber people,” Dr. Suk says, “and I never would have met these people in any other setting. We came from such disparate backgrounds, professions and political beliefs, yet we formed some really strong friendships that will last a lifetime.”
The year in review
In a year as inspirational, enlightening and star-studded as 2003-2004 was for Dr. Suk, singling out the ‘highlights’ wasn’t easy, but he made an attempt.
“There were so many highlights, including meeting President Bush and Secretary (of State Colin) Powell, sitting with Hank McKinnell (CEO of Pfizer, Inc.), meeting (New York City) Mayor Bloomberg, talking with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Condoleezza Rice, (Chief of Staff) Andrew Card, nearly all of the Cabinet Secretaries…There’s just a laundry list.”
To expand on that list a bit, Dr. Suk and his classmates also enjoyed informal, off-the-record meetings with: Henry Kissinger; Jack Valenti; Bob Woodward; Kenneth Starr; Surgeon General Richard Carmona, MD; George Stephanopoulos; Karl Rove; Ann Compton; Susan Eisenhower; FBI Director Robert Mueller; Former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane; Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; William Kristol; Sen. John McCain; Cokie Roberts; Brit Hume; White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan; Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, and Gen. Brent Scrowcroft, to name a few.
Dr. Suk had the opportunity to meet with several Cabinet members, including Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.
|Some of the more memorable events included White House receptions, a viewing of CNN’s “Crossfire,” landing on the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman Aircraft Carrier and interacting with members of the military, media training, fireworks on the South Lawn of the White House, and overseas and domestic policy trips.|
Although the dazzling year is now behind him, as a White House Fellow alumnus, Dr. Suk remains in impressive company. With fewer than 600 alumni in all, the fellowship is a fairly exclusive club. Well-known members
include former Secretary of State Colin Powell; CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD; Gen. Wesley L. Clark; Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, and American Red Cross President Marsha Evans, to name just a few.
“A sense of responsibility”
When the program was first established in 1965, the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships wrote the following:
“The [Fellows’] horizons and experience must be broadened to give them a sense of personal involvement in the leadership of society, a vision of greatness for the society, and a sense of responsibility for bringing that greatness to reality.”
Nearly 40 years later, that goal is still being achieved.
“I went into this program, in part, to see if there was a place for me in the world of public service,” Dr. Suk says. “And the answer to that question is yes! Washington is a place that encourages you to have a vision and to think big… I came away with the knowledge and the belief that that one person really can make a difference.”
Dr. Suk says he is humbled by the privilege given to him, and he is committed to “immediately” using the lessons he’s learned in a meaningful way in his own community.
“In the future, I hope that I can repay this debt through a significant contribution as a public servant,” he says.
“Orthopaedic surgeons are natural leaders”
At the conclusion of his fellowship, Dr. Suk left Washington, D.C., to take on a new role as Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Florida and Director of the Orthopaedic Trauma Service at Shands Medical Center in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Several people cautioned that taking time off from clinical practice and returning to it would be difficult,” he recalls. “I have not found that to be the case. In the end, it’s really no different than taking a year off to do research or pursue another scholarly activity.”
For now, Dr. Suk is focused on the practice of orthopaedics—and the arrival of his first child this past October—but he remains involved in many activities that he hopes will benefit from his experience.
Dr. Suk wholeheartedly encourages his orthopaedic colleagues to apply for the White House Fellows program.
“I think that orthopaedic surgeons, in general, are natural leaders,” Dr. Suk says. “I would strongly recommend the White House Fellows program to anyone who has the wherewithal, the time and the energy to do it.
“This country is in desperate need of high-caliber physician leaders with experience outside of their own specialties in order to unite the many voices in medicine,” he adds. “Orthopaedic surgeons need to be a part of that effort.”
The White House Fellows Program is accepting applications for the 2005-2006 class through February 1, 2005. For more details, or to download an application form, visit http://www.whitehouse.gov/fellows