Erika Dawson: Associate Director for Diversity and Inclusion

                                                                                          Erika with her son Cole

                                                                                          Erika with her son Cole

1. Do you have any hobbies or secret talents? Is there something you consider yourself to be very good at?

I played the violin from 3rd to 10th grade. I stopped in 10th grade for a couple of reasons. I lost a lot of my hearing from chemo and radiation. And scar tissue from surgery on my neck made holding a violin awkward. Also, schools were cutting back and the violin instructor was cut from our school. My family couldn’t afford private lessons. I loved playing the violin. I wasn’t too bad. I made All City Orchestra in 8th and 9th grade. I get chills and tears in my eyes when I hear stringed instruments.

2. What do you do like to do on the weekends or in free time?

“What is a ‘weekend’?” As a working parent and wife of a law school student, free time is rare. I usually wind up on a “play date” or at a kid’s birthday party. So once my son is in bed, and if I’m not half asleep myself, I’ll watch an hour of smart, adult TV. With a glass of adult juice. Like Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy. My DVR is always 80-90 percent full. If I need a good laugh, I’ll pop in DVDs of Chappelle’s Show. When we have a few days off around holidays, I’ll binge watch a show. I watched Breaking Bad over the last winter break. Maybe House of Cards or Orange is the New Black this year. Or wait, should I lie and just say that I like to read?! :  )

3. Have you traveled to somewhere you’ve really enjoyed? Or do you have a favorite city/country/tourist spot?

I haven’t traveled as much as I’d like to. I hope to do more of that soon. Especially now that my son is a walking, talking, going to the bathroom on his own, kid. For now we do local, 6 yr old -friendly trips. We stayed down the shore in Ocean City, NJ for a week this summer and my son loved it. I really want to do some research and find out where my mother’s parents are from in Italy and visit there. My husband and I did have a short trip to Aruba a couple of years ago. I loved it. It was so hot! I like any place that’s warm! Las Vegas was good too. I’ve been there a couple of times. I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did since I’m not a gambler. I saw a few Cirque du Soleil shows and they are fabulous. 

4. Do you have any pets? Tell me about them! If you don’t have a pet, would you want one, and what kind?

I used to have a cat named Rufus. A black cat with green eyes. Rufus was like my first child. I love Chaka Khan so I named the cat Rufus. 
I could tell you so many funny stories about Rufus. Cats and plastic bags are a laugh riot. Cats and Christmas decorations. Cats and hair dryers – he flipped a coffee table over because he got so scared of my hair dryer. About 5 or 6 years ago, I found out I have an allergy to cats and dogs, but I thought, I’ve lived with Rufus all this time and he’s an old cat. I’ll just let him live out his life with us. But this cat won’t die. He’s like on his second of nine lives and no signs of wearing down. In the meantime, I keep having all these respiratory issues year after year. Pneumonia, bronchitis. After the most recent bout with bronchitis, I decided Rufus had to go. I called and begged and pleaded with every no-kill place I could find. But no one wanted an old cat that already had a home. I felt my only option was to take him to a shelter and it broke my heart. I was basically sentencing this old cat to death because I had an allergy. Fortunately, with help from someone in Suite 100 I was able to find a home for Rufus this summer. Such a relief emotionally and physically! There are good people in this world!

5. Do you enjoy playing any sports? Do you follow any sports or specific teams?

Whatever gene there is that makes people physically active… I don’t have it. I talked and cried my way out of gym class all through school. I am clumsy and lack coordination and balance. 
I’m from Philadelphia, I love this city and I root for Philly teams. The Sixers, the Phillies, and the Eagles. I was an avid sports fan when I was younger. I could tell you field goal and free throw percentages, batting averages, ERAs, saves. I have the happiest memory of when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. My parents lived on Jackson St. near Broad, just down the street from Southern. So my family gathered at my parents’ house to watch the parade. I stood on the steps and watched while holding my son. He was almost two months old. I’d never seen so many people in my life. People walked down Broad St. in hordes for hours. Can you imagine the population of this city and surrounding suburbs all standing on South Broad Street? That was such an awesomely splendid day. Seeing so many people united in happiness for the same thing. I wish that could happen more often. 

6. What is your favorite type of food or restaurant? Do you like to cook, and do you have a signature dish?

I really like spicy foods –  make-your-brow-sweat spicy foods. But I’m a snob about food. A few months ago, a high school friend of mine drove up from her home in Maryland to visit me and another old friend, and go out to dinner. We hadn’t seen each other for years. So then we have The Decision – where to go? “what do you want, I don’t know, what do you want…” My one girlfriend says, Red Lobster. I’m thinking, are you outside of your mind? And then the other girlfriend agreed! I was devastated and trapped. I just drank a lot to dull the pain of eating farm-raised shrimp. So yeah, I’m a snob. And my husband and I frequent Margaret Kuo’s for takeout. It’s a great Chinese and Japanese restaurant near our home in Wayne, PA. 
And I do love to cook! With the cooler weather I can make my favorite comfort foods – meatballs, baked macaroni, collard greens. I’m a big fan of vegetables. Brussel sprouts are soooo good. Broccoli, cabbage, peas, okra. I can make you love the vegetable you hate most. And no, not just by deep frying it. I like baking cakes and pies. My husband loves a rum cake that I make. And lemon meringue pie – I got the recipe from my husband’s great-grandmother. It’s a very Southern lemon meringue pie. I’ve received many requests to make those and meatballs (Italian style) at family gatherings and dinner parties.

7. Do you have a favorite book or movie, and why do you like it?

My favorite book is Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I read it for the first time while in high school. I like the story of this woman who just didn’t fit. I regularly felt (feel?) like I don’t fit. She didn’t fit into any of the roles that women were supposed to be in. And she didn’t apologize for it.
And my favorite movie is The Princess Bride. I love how over time it has become known as such a classic film. I quote it at least once a week. “LIAR!!” Can you see what I just did there? Lord of the Rings trilogy is a close second.

8. If you had to be a Penn med student, how do you think you would survive?

If I were a Penn Med student at this ripe old age, I could do it, no problem. It’s 24-7 and unpredictable, like being a parent. I’d just need someone to stand in for me during any class that involves a cadaver. ;  )

9. Is there anything you would want to say to Penn med students?

Thank you for making this a place I want to wake up and report to in the morning every day. And don’t ever feel like you’re “bothering” me or I’m too busy.

10. Anything else you’d like to include about yourself!

This is long but I’d like to share two things about me that shape just about everything in my life. 

When I was 15 I was diagnosed with cancer (nasopharyngealcarcinoma). I was being treated by my primary doctor for 9 months with one antibiotic after the next before he finally, literally, shrugged his shoulders and referred me to someone else. I was in so much pain. I couldn’t get out of bed. My diet was Advil and crackers. After I got referred to another doctor things changed so quickly. He ordered a CT scan and it showed that I had 3 tumors. He knew a doctor, who was married to a doctor at CHOP that was an oncologist and called her right there in his office. He told my mom, if this was happening to my child I would go to CHOP (he was at Hahnemann). They moved so quickly and got me diagnosed and treated so quickly. My oncologist was so optimistic – she made sure I was keeping up with school, made sure I didn’t fall behind my peers academically. I’ll never forget she bought me a SAT prep book because she said, you’re taking the SAT with the rest of your class. Like, cancer, you’re not getting this one. She was the brightest spot in such a dark time. I always feel safe being near CHOP and Penn. I guess that’s why I’m still here. Even though this was over 20 years ago, a day doesn’t goes by that I don’t think about radiation, chemo, and surgeries because of all the effects of it I feel today. Penn Medicine saved my life and it is incredibly fulfilling to be here now. 

Also, my oncologist was the first African-American female professional I’d encountered in my life. She’d gone to college, medical school. I didn’t know any women of color like that and she really was an image that I needed to see. I’m biracial – African American and Italian. I grew up very poor and in “the hood”. Kids dropping out of school in high school. Pregnant at 8th and 9th grade. I know several people, some family, who have been murdered. And I was always an oddball – because I was mixed and many around me weren’t,  because I was sick and missed a lot of school, and because I loved school when so many dropped out. I was the first in my family (and only) to go to college. It was incredibly isolating there. I never felt like I was supposed to be in college. And when I’d go home, I didn’t feel like I fit in there either. But remembering who my oncologist was made me feel less like an oddball and ok to be different. And I realized when I was around 30 that I wanted to help students, especially first-generation students, in higher ed to get the support they needed so that they never felt as if they didn’t fit in. I think people keep stuff in and feel alone when they’re really not. I can’t do that. That is like another type of cancer. I need to talk and get it all out. I think others do too. So I like to just try to make people happy and smile. A smile goes a long way.