A “happy accident” led Nzinga (Harris) Graham ’04, MD, to Mount Saint Mary’s University, although she couldn’t have anticipated such a stellar outcome when her high school counselor lost her college applications. Fortunately, two colleges sent representatives to conduct onsite admissions at King/Drew Magnet High School in Los Angeles, and Graham met with then-admissions counselor Sonali Perera Bridges ’98, MBA. After visiting the Chalon Campus, Graham knew the Mount was the right fit for her.
“I’d always been into the sciences and wanted to be a physician,” she says, “so I had to choose a place where that career choice would be supported. There’s no better place, in my opinion, with how well the Mount is connected throughout the U.S. and the world in terms of science and medicine in particular.”
Graham participated in DOCS (Developing Our Careers in Science), which has morphed into the current WISH (Women in Science and Health), which is a bit broader. As a member, she’d participate in activities such as helping the group host health fairs or attend an elementary school’s career day.
The summer before her senior year, Graham married and headed to Harvard Medical School two weeks later for an internship that she secured through a connection of Sister Annette Bower, CSJ, ’59, who taught biological science. As a new bride, Graham deferred her entrance into graduate school for a year and through another Sister Annette connection with the principal of St. Mary’s Academy, joined that faculty to teach biology, chemistry and algebra.
Graham ultimately obtained her medical degree at UCLA. The biggest hurdle: she loved all her clinical rotations. “That made things so difficult,” she says. “But the one specialty that really seemed to at least bring most of that together, including women’s health, is family medicine. So that’s what I chose.”
Graham has held several roles at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles. Drawing on that year of teaching high school, Graham joined the faculty of the residency program, and she also teaches med students at USC and UCLA, as well as some rotating external students. She thought she’d assume a fulltime faculty position in a residency program, but a few mentors steered her toward hospital administration, and she now helps lead the efforts for physician wellness and has run programs with pharmacy and patient safety.
As a Trustee, Graham serves on the educational and student life committees. “I love being able to help mold what the college experience will be for young women and ensuring that students have the services they need. The vast majority of students are from underserved communities, so we ensure they get the support they need to be successful and give back to society. One of our selling points is that students should come here to experience how to develop as a person and how they may change the world.”
Giving back was ingrained in Graham at a young age. Her mother was a community activist and took her daughter to protests, city council meetings and the like, learning the importance of speaking up for those who may not have a voice, and also trying to build community. Girl Scouts also instilled in her the idea of leaving something better than when you arrived. “My thoughts around giving back absolutely started before I came to the Mount, but the Mount encouraged that even more deeply.”
In addition to her work as an urgentologist at Kaiser Permanente, Graham is co-champion of its physician wellness program and is equally enthusiastic in her support of our Wellness Movement. Always our advocate, Graham testified in support of the Wellness Pavilion during last year’s public hearings, which ultimately led to a unanimous vote of support from city planning commissioners.
A donor herself, Graham believes it’s important for alumnae to give back when they’re able — in any amount. “I’m just so grateful for the experience I had at the Mount,” says Graham. “The basic education is the same wherever you go, but students are really looking for a place where they feel like they can fit and where their interests will be developed. The Mount was that for me.”
Commending the Mount faculty
“I have so many fond memories of women who were both great at what they did as well as worked tirelessly to improve the next generation. Also, the men who believed that women could do whatever they wanted to do and who were there to encourage us in every way and provide opportunities for us.”
Some of her favorite professors:
Deniz Cizmeciyan, PhD, department chair, math and physical sciences: “She’s the epitome of science. She’s a little powerhouse – a tiny frame, but you know when she’s there because she has such great presence."
Eleanor Siebert, PhD, professor of the chemistry department, provost and academic vice president: She would come to me with every opportunity, and I’d say, “I’m tired,” but she’d be relentless in such a good way. She’s one of those people who are really on you because she says she knows you can be great. She’d always ask, “How can we make this possible?”
Eric Stemp, PhD, department chair and professor of physical sciences: Graham spent a summer at Caltech doing research under Stemp. “I still keep in touch with him. When he was my teacher, he was new at the Mount, and he really elevated the research to the next level. He’s been a wonderful mentor and a genuinely caring person who wants to make sure you’re successful at what you do.”
Helen Boutrous, JD, PhD: “I would be remiss if I didn’t include her, because she made such a lasting impression. My senior year, I had finished all my core biology and biochemistry major requirements; I just needed more units to graduate, so I took intro to constitutional law. I loved her class so much, I contemplated going to law school. That’s how wonderful a professor she was! I always try to mention her because it shows how well-rounded an education you can get at the Mount. You can learn to think more critically regardless of what field you’re going into.