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From campus activism to diversifying dermatology: Nada Elbuluk ’04 shares her journey

<h6>Courtesy of Nada Elbuluk ’04</h6>
Courtesy of Nada Elbuluk ’04

Dr. Nada Elbuluk 04 is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Skin of Color Center and Pigmentary Disorders Program at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine, where she also serves as an assistant professor. She graduated from the University with a degree in Psychology and certificates in Gender and Sexuality Studies and African American Studies.

Elbuluk was the student chair of the University’s former Third World Center’s (TWC) governance board from 2001–02. She was a leader in the push to rename Princeton’s multicultural center, which many students believed to have an outdated and offensive title, along with then-TWC director Heddye Ducree. The Princeton Board of Trustees approved the name change to the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding (CAF) in April 2002.

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Twenty years have passed following this name change. In June 2020, the Board of Trustees removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson Residential College, citing the former President’s inappropriate “racist thinking and policies.” Following this prominent name change, Elbuluk looks back at her role in CAF’s rebranding process and how the experience shaped her current work to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the field of dermatology.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

The Daily Princetonian: What aspects of your identity and Princeton experience helped to inform your decisions in your medical work?

Nada Elbuluk: I would also say my time working at the Third World Center — now known as the Carl A. Fields Center — gave me background on the complexity of diversity, equity and inclusion and cultural competency, in a way that has been really impactful in my career as a physician. 

Since starting my career as a dermatologist and faculty member at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, I have worked with the dermatology department with the goal of helping to diversify the healthcare workforce. In my current field of dermatology, three percent of dermatologists are Black and four percent are Hispanic. Additionally, I’ve worked on programming to increase cultural humility amongst physicians, to ensure that we can take care of patients in a way that incorporates their own backgrounds, needs, and health literacy.

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DP: What was your experience like as a leader in the previous Third World Center (TWC)? 

NE: Coming to Princeton, it's an amazing experience getting to be with people from all around the world, in this diverse, new environment. But I think for many Princeton students, we also still look for people we have similarities with. I've always been very drawn to the celebration of different races and cultures and ethnicities. So, it felt like a natural alignment for me to start working with the Third World Center, and eventually become the chair of the student governance board. 

TWC was a home on campus for minority students. It was meant to be an umbrella organization, and I was proud of the very diverse board we had. One of the things that we realized when I became chair was that there was a cohort of people that were not comfortable with the name “Third World Center.” We thought, “Is this a name that properly represents us and the diverse cross-section of groups that are part of [this organization]?” We wanted everyone on campus to feel that diversity and feel that TWC was for them.

DP: Can you speak about the TWC name change process?

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NE: It started to become a question of, “Why would being a minority be affiliated with a place that's called the ‘Third World Center’?” That was a very interesting experience, because we learned that changing the name of a place at Princeton is not a fast or easy process. It started out as casual conversation among us. 

Before going deeper into this process, though, we had to do historical digging back to TWC’s founding. We connected with the alumni who started the center in the 1970s and tried to understand why they gave it that name — they chose it themselves. What was the meaning of that name to them, and how did they feel about it now? Speaking to the alumni was a very educational and eye-opening experience, because we learned many alumni felt aligned with [the name]. We had to learn what it was like, being a few of the only minority students back in the seventies. So there was a cohort who was resistant to the idea of change. 

I think the meaning was still there — what [TWC] meant to us in the early 2000s was the same as what it meant to them when they started it, in terms of the value of the space. There was just a difference in what we felt we should be called, as by the early 2000s we felt TWC was not a name that accurately reflected how minority students felt about their own identities. But we wanted to respect the alumni’s ties to the name and make them feel comfortable with our decision.

DP: After getting alumni approval, what were your next steps? 

NE: At the time, Heddye Ducree was the Director of TWC. She was a mother figure for many of us at the school, and she was very instrumental in helping to guide us institutionally through the map of change in an academic institution. We realized that in order to change the name, we had to present this idea to the Princeton Board of Trustees — the University president then was Shirley Tilghman. 

There was a year-long formal process of presenting the fact that we wanted to rename it and what we wanted to rename it to, and then getting approval. We asked, “How do we pay respect to the past while representing the present, and creating a place that continues to exist for the future?”

DP: How did you all decide on the full name ‘Carl A. Fields Center For Equality and Cultural Understanding’? (A note for our readers: At Princeton in 1968, Fields became the first African American administrator in the Ivy League, when he “was promoted to assistant dean of the college.”)

NE: Carl A. Fields was one of the earliest African American administrators at Princeton, and we wanted to recognize somebody like him who was an early pioneer. Then we thought about words that we liked, and we landed on ‘Equality and Cultural Understanding’ — we felt like that was a better reflection of what we wanted people to know about the center. If somebody walked on campus and had no idea about anything, just hearing the name of it told them more.

Right after I finished my term as chair, we had the official renaming ceremony. Fields was no longer living, but his wife and family members came to it, and it was a very special, meaningful day to do this renaming and dedication in honor of him and the principles we all value.

DP: You are the founder and director of the USC Skin of Color Center and Pigmentary Disorders Program. Can you talk about what motivated you to embark on this journey, and how have you found the process so far?

NE: On my path of becoming a dermatologist, I became very interested in pigmentation — from a biological and clinical perspective, but also from a psychological perspective. These pigmentary disorders can have profoundly negative effects on quality of life, particularly in people of color. As I started researching these diseases, I found that there were many conditions for which we had very limited knowledge, and realized my career niche and passion. 

I was able to further develop that as a resident at Johns Hopkins, and started a pigmentary clinic when I was on faculty at NYU. This clinic then expanded into a more robust program at USC. I did this because of the lack of research that I found in these areas and because of the profound health disparities that I’ve seen amongst communities of color, including with dermatologic diseases. I added a research arm to the skin and color program I founded at USC, and this has included a fellowship where I mentor a medical student for one year. That mentorship program has also helped serve as a pipeline for increasing diversity in medicine, as my fellows so far have all been women of underrepresented backgrounds. 

DP: Can you expand on the inequities that exist for skin of color in the dermatology field? How are clinics and centers like the one you founded bridging that gap in medicine?

NE: There are many dermatologic conditions which can appear differently in patients of color, and because of this they are sometimes misdiagnosed or diagnosed at a later stage — which can contribute to disease, morbidity, and worsened quality of life. There are also under-researched diseases, including keloids and CCCA, scarring alopecia, which are more unique to patients of color that are disproportionately affecting these communities. I feel passionately about making sure that all patients, including patients of color, are receiving equitable care that’s delivered in a culturally competent manner.

DP: How do you think institutions like Princeton and USC can better foster conversations surrounding the relationship between racial advocacy and medicine? What would you say to current students interested in getting involved in this intersection of fields?

NE: I think institutions have power in their voices, and their resources and can help utilize those to help make change happen. I think there are programs that can be created to help support minority physicians and healthcare providers, improve health disparities, and to help create health equity for patients of color.

Gia Musselwhite is a Features staff writer for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any correction requests to corrections@dailyprincetonian.com.

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