By Lilibeth Garcia
Before alumnus Dr. Calvin Ho (B.A. Asian American studies ’08) began his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Irvine, he knew he wanted to work with underserved communities. Now a resident physician in the Veteran Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and UCLA, he has found his calling. Getting there, though, was neither linear nor easy.
Growing up in Hawthorne California, a working-class community in Los Angeles, Ho felt that attending college was not expected or encouraged by his community.
“I had a lot of friends who didn’t graduate high school or became teenage parents. And if they did graduate high school, they often worked blue-collar jobs. To me, something wasn’t right, and I knew I wanted to come back and do something,” Ho says. “I didn’t know what it would be, or what I should pursue or study. A lot of times, we didn’t have that guidance.”
But Ho had a mentor at Leuzinger High School. His teacher, the sponsor of the Vietnamese club Ho had started, graduated from UCLA. Understanding the value of higher education, his teacher made the effort to visit the parents of his brightest students with the goal of broadening their perspectives on the value of a college degree. Like Ho’s parents, many parents were from Vietnam, and their refugee and low-income backgrounds made them wary of investing in a college education.
Ho came to learn that education meant social mobility, but perhaps most importantly, it also represented a means for him to contribute to his community. He aspired to become a teacher in order to help others as he himself had been helped.
At UCI, courses in Asian American studies fascinated him and offered him the opportunity to learn about his heritage in depth. He still recalls fondly some of his favorite courses, including “African American – Asian American Relations” taught by Dorothy Fujita-Rony, associate professor of Asian American studies. Her course taught him about the Los Angeles riots – something he had witnessed personally but had not clearly understood until this class. Ho credits Professor of Asian American Studies Linda Vo, whom he calls “remarkable,” with inspiring him to continue pursuing a career in teaching.
After Ho graduated, he continued his academic journey by earning a master’s degree in education at UCLA. All was going to plan as he taught high school algebra in South Central, Los Angeles. However, shortly into his first year teaching, tragedy struck. A severe allergic reaction to medication landed him in the hospital for six days. He was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a disorder with a fatality rate of almost five percent. He lacked medical insurance at the time, and the hospital bill, although reduced significantly after several petitions, cost him all the money he had saved for a wedding. The physiological recovery was tough, but the mental recovery was just as difficult given the uncertainties, acuity and severity of the illness. The experience shifted his perception, and he began to seriously consider training as a health care provider to help the people he intended to serve, just from a new angle.
After becoming aware of medical schools at historically black colleges with a social mission paralleling his own, Ho was intent on gaining admission to a medical program that was driven by social justice. He was accepted by his first choice: Howard University. He credits his humanities background for giving him the tools to achieve his post-graduate goals.
“Majoring in a humanities discipline gives you skills that are very translatable—proficiency in communication, reading, interpreting, articulating and analyzing. My ability to explain how I fused my traumatic allergic reaction experience with an interest in science and medicine and ambition to give back to underserved communities played a significant role in getting accepted into medical schools,” Ho explains. “Also, I think that because I was not the average M.D. applicant, as an Asian American studies major, I stood out.”
After medical school, he matched into his first-choice residency at the Veterans Affairs Greater LA Healthcare System and UCLA, specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
“Physical medicine and rehabilitation are often described as holistic and comprehensive medicine that focuses on physical function as well as the mental and social aspects. That’s really important to me after the experience I had,” he says.
Ho finds working with veterans one of the most fulfilling aspects of his practice. He grew up knowing people who went into the military because it was their only way out of poverty. Veterans, aside from having served their country, disproportionately experience posttraumatic stress syndrome and homelessness. He also understands, from first-hand experience and research, that the road to recovery can be extremely difficult. This is especially true for communities that lack access to optimal treatments. He is currently conducting research that explores ethnic differences in pain perception in post-operative knee/hip replacement surgery, building on previous studies, which have found that minorities experience higher rates of dispairties in health care such as underrepresentation in receiving joint replacement surgery compared to non-Hispanic whites.
Although Ho is confident about his career and the possibilities that await him in the future, he remembers how hard it was to get to his position. He felt his grade schools were underfunded and underserved. And despite graduating seventh in his class in high school, he was ill-prepared for college. When he arrived at UCI, he had to take four academic English courses to catch up to college-level English. Taking remedial courses placed him behind in necessary course units, and he ended up on unit probation. But he worked hard to catch up and eventually made it into the Asian American Studies Honors Program. To college students, he advises, “Pursue your dreams and passions and give it 100% no matter what it is – whether it’s Asian American studies, English or music. Whatever you decide to do, when people look at your resume and see that you’re dedicated to something you love, and that you pursued your passion and gave it 100%, they tend to respect that tremendously.”
As he works through his residency, he still dreams of going back to teaching, specifically at a community college near his hometown where he completed his prerequisite courses for medical school, as those students have the least amount of means and resources, he reasons. Upon finishing his training, he is considering many options. One of which includes being both a classroom teacher and physician. Wherever he goes, he aims to aid the underserved. He credits his two young children, Eleanor and Evander, with keeping the flame of his passion ignited.
“They are truly a blessing,” he says. “Having them has reinforced my passion for service. My one goal in life is to help them understand how meaningful and rewarding it is to make a difference in others’ lives.”
Photo: Dr. Calvin Ho holds his newborn, Eleanor, with wife Vivian Nguyen