Do-Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers: Aaronson Chew

Aaronson ChewPhoto courtesy of Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Aaronson Chew learned to hold himself to a higher standard of inclusivity when he was an undergraduate at University of California, Irvine. There, he became a resident advisor in a living-learning community known for its commitment to fostering diversity through various programs and extra in-hall classes.

Chew has channeled that standard throughout the 10 years since he graduated from UC Irvine. He has since joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School as a psychiatry professor, where he teaches students about the role of diversity in medical practice. While teaching, Chew draws connections between mental health and diversity factors and guides his students toward understanding the importance of multiculturalism in the medical field.

Earlier this year, his work was recognized by the Harold Amos Faculty Diversity Award by Harvard Medical School. The award is named after the late professor Harold Amos, who was the first African-American man to be named a department chair at Harvard University. Each year, it is presented to faculty members who encourage inclusion and diversity of thought, education, and research.

One of his colleagues wrote in a nomination letter that Chew “has championed multiple efforts to enhance the multicultural expertise of his trainees through an understanding of cultural identity and how cultural factors influence the psychological understanding of emotions,” according to the announcement of Chew’s award.

“I was very surprised,” Chew says about receiving the award. “I’m not one big for awards, to apply for them or to even get them. So, this was a big honor for me. It shows more the work that I’ve been able to do with the people around me, the people that have forged around me, the people that are doing the work that I’m doing here. I think in some ways, I’m just a representative and conduit for some of that work and the importance in identifying diversity factors in mental health, as well as physical health.”

Chew grew up in East Los Angeles and attended a small, liberal-arts-focused grade school in South Pasadena, where there were only about 10 students per grade. He completed his undergraduate career with a degree in comparative literature and received his Ph.D. in counseling psychology from University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2015.

“I really learned about what it was like to grow up in a different culture that’s not your own,” he says. “Oftentimes, we had to travel a lot to go to see my grandparents who lived in predominantly Chinese-speaking neighborhoods, and then when we would come back home kind of do this code-switching type of thing of how to reintegrate into our neighborhood, which was [a] mostly Spanish-speaking Latino neighborhood.”

He discovered “a passion for leadership” early on in his life, which led him to his work in counseling—which he now does at Cambridge Health Alliance—and in teaching. In addition to resident advising in college, Chew gained mentoring experience from a program where he provided tutoring and in-class assistance to schools with limited resources. The skills he’s acquired from these two professions often overlap, according to Chew, as both teaching and counseling are primarily about listening.

“Teaching has been at the core of everything I do,” he says. “A lot of the work that I do in teaching as well as in psychotherapy is not necessarily confined to one silo. It’s moreso meeting the person where they’re at and then help adjusting what I can provide to them based upon that.”

Although supporting diversity has been a lifelong pursuit for Chew, he acknowledges that he is continuously learning about how to improve.

“Diversity for me has been a very elusive concept, and it’s morphed over the time of my own development, and it still is morphing in my understanding,” he says. “It’s easy to teach multiculturalism or diversity in a very, very wrong way. There’s many ways to do it wrong. There’s very few ways to do it right, which makes it so difficult. And even if you do do it, who knows how effective it is? It’s a very tricky, slippery topic that is so politically charged. This is just a testament to other people that I work with that are doing this work. It shows me that the work that we are all doing is valued and we should continue to do it, because it’s making meaningful differences in the lives of our students, patients, and our colleagues.”

This story originally appeared in the Celebrating the Season issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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