Michelle Feng, Ph.D.
Michelle Feng, Ph.D.

Today is International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate the achievements made and progress yet to come by women across the globe.

Recently, I was named a Rising Star in the 2021 McKnight’s Women of Distinction awards. It is an honor to be part of such an exceptional group of women and has made me think of the many women who influenced me thus far in my career.

Today felt like the perfect moment to gather some thoughts and celebrate lessons I’ve learned from just some of the brilliant, strong women I have had the pleasure of coming across in my life. 

Here are seven lessons I’ve learned from them:

  • You don’t have to be the one in the spotlight to make an impact. As a first-generation resident of the U.S., my Taiwanese mother instilled within me a solid work ethic and the importance of being humble. During so many moments of our family’s life, she has stood in the background caring for others, including as a principal caregiver for my grandmother. She taught me that you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to make effective contributions.
  • Speak up and be heard – everyone on a team has value. It’s said that a young person’s career is often influenced by their first boss, and I would agree. During internship, Jenny was my first main supervisor at Boston V.A. Medical Center, where I was surrounded by experts. I felt my place was mainly to listen. Jenny taught me there is value to voicing an opinion, even when you’re young or new. She once asked why I didn’t speak up more in our team meetings, and I said it was because I was the most junior person in the room. She replied, “I actually think about it differently. I learn from interns all the time. You are the closest to the research and have another perspective to share, and that’s valuable.” This instilled in me an appreciation for knowing the value of my voice regardless of the title I hold. Not everyone can speak to everything, but their take is still very valuable.
  • Embrace those who are different. Joanne was one of my clinical supervisors at USC, and she led a course to train graduate students on conducting therapy with older adults. It was my first experience working with older adults in a clinical setting. As a supervisor, she was caring, but very direct, a straight shooter. I quickly learned to respect and value her approach, and I continue to model some of her directness in my work today. While we have different styles, she has been a lasting mentor in my life, and even recommended I teach the same course she once taught me while at USC.
  • Create supportive environments that allow others to grow. Gail was one of my managers at USC, and I learned from her how to lead a small group of clinicians. Her warm style created an environment where it was easy to open up and admit to mistakes (or perceived mistakes). This allowed us to learn quickly, take risks, feel vulnerable and grow as clinicians and people. She provided specific feedback and fostered an environment for team members to support each other. I think of her style often and strive to create these environments for my own team. 
  • Write in a way that is informative and accessible to all. Those beginning their work in a LTC setting soon realize just how very unique – and by unique, I mean at times complicated –  it can be. Dr. El explains complicated situations one encounters in this setting extraordinarily well. With simple and practical suggestions, she weaves in an understanding of the deeper industry challenges that is grounded in real-world experience. Without skirting the issues, she offers information and recommendations to the LTC community through the lens of a mental health professional. She has been a consistent voice for psychologists in long-term care, representing mental health providers like myself, and for that I am grateful!
  • Celebrate the small and big moments in life. I learn things from my patients all the time. This lesson I learned from a female patient of mine, who has dealt with a lot in her life. In spite of this, she always makes it a point to celebrate occasions. She celebrates her birthday every year regardless of who is there or the setting she is in. She goes big during holidays and makes a point to turn the day into an occasion for herself. I admire that about her and try to mirror that.
  • Stay in touch and listen to the needs of your community. Angie and Petra are key leaders in the community and at Alzheimer’s Los Angeles. Both are committed to supporting their communities and partnering with others to facilitate education and resources directly to those that could benefit. Even during the darkest hours of the pandemic, they have continued to make incredible contributions with real-world impact. I have been inspired by what they do and their ability to stay connected with their network over time.

Michelle Feng, Ph.D, is chief clinical officer of Executive Mental Health and 2021 McKnight’s Women of Distinction Rising Star.