April 4, 2010

The Power of Giving Back Alumni Spotlight – Dr. Anita (Johnson) Connell

By Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity

Dr. Anita Connell (’68, ’75, ’80), who has run her own OBGYN practice in Seattle since 1982, understood the power of giving back at a very early age.

The notion of giving back was instilled in the heart of DR. ANITA (JOHNSON) CONNELL at a very young age. Growing up in a household of six children in Seattle, her parents made sure she understood its significance.

“I was raised with the concept of being an African-American that I owed something to the community because it was on the backs of other people that opportunity had been made available to me,” she said. “Even though I worked hard on my own, my parents always instilled the idea that someone went before me and made sacrifices so that my hard work allowed me to take advantage of an opportunity, but I didn’t create the opportunity. I think everyone owes something to their community. Whether it’s minority or majority, I think you have to decide how to give back.”

Dr. Connell, who completed her undergraduate degree (’68), medical school (’75) and residency program (’80) at the University Washington, has undoubtedly made her parents proud, giving back to her community both professionally and philanthropically. Since 1982, Dr. Connell has run her own private OBGYN practice in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood, just a few miles away from where she grew up. She delivered babies until 2004 and now focuses primarily on surgery and office gynecology at her Johnson Connell Clinic for Women in the Nordstrom Tower. Among the highlights of her very successful career was delivering the youngest son and grandson of one of her UW mentors and friends, Dr. Samuel Kelly.

On top of juggling a solo practice and raising her family, Dr. Connell makes sure to always remain accessible to the community. She has served as a keynote speaker for various events, raising awareness of women’s health issues and education. She has also participated in church programs and volunteered at various high school career days. Serving as a mentor, Dr. Connell trains medical assistants in her office and is available to talk to students interested in the science and medicine fields. In addition to serving as a member of various professional associations, her most recent community involvement has focused on working with the Seattle chapter of Links, Inc., a predominantly African-American women’s organization that gives back to the community in many ways.

Dr. Connell may give back in several capacities, but she was also one to pave the way for those coming behind her. While an undergraduate at UW in the late 1960’s, she was among a group of African-American and minority students who chartered the first Black Student Union and in doing so, helped build a spring board for the development of what is now known as the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity. Dr. Connell was also involved in negotiations with the city to get a direct bus route established along 23rd Avenue so UW students living in Seattle’s Central District did not have to take a two-hour bus ride through downtown just to get to the university.

When she began her studies at the UW Medical School, Dr. Connell was a part of the largest class of women to have ever been accepted to the program, but was one of just three African-American females in the group. She also overcame the challenges of opening up her own practice during a time when few female doctors even practiced in the Seattle area.

Despite all the obstacles she faced, Dr. Connell continues to rise to the occasion and serve as an outstanding role model. “Sometimes I feel guilty as to if I was not there enough for my children,” she reflected. “But they assure me that I was an inspiration to them.”

That is a fair statement to make considering her son earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently a Vice President at BlackRock, Inc., in New York City. Dr. Connell’s daughter is a junior at Seattle University, majoring in accounting. Both of her children were initially interested in pursuing medicine, but switched gears in college.

Dr. Connell wanted to be a doctor for as long as she can remember. “My mother relates a time when my brother got a doctor’s kit and I got a nurse’s kit,” she said. “When he abandoned his for an interest in music, I took over his kit and started healing all of my toys.”

Initially, she was discouraged from pursuing a career in medicine by her high school counselor due to the finances that were involved in paying for a medical education. Then she thought she would like to pursue engineering but was told there were not any female engineers in the industry. Finally she turned to education. “The people who had been influential in my life at that time had been teachers, so I said I’d go into education,” Dr. Connell recalls.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in education, taught for a year and then realized there were ways to pay for whatever education she wanted. And she still wanted to be a doctor. A visit with the then-UW Dean of Admissions, Dr. M. Roy Schwarz, helped her figure out what she needed to do to apply for medical school and the rest was history.

Dr. Connell’s degree in psychology certainly comes in handy when working with women’s health issues and she has the ability to address not just physical concerns but emotional concerns as well. Dr. Connell also takes pride in serving a very diverse group of patients. “I have a very diverse practice and I always have, probably because when I started out there weren’t many female doctors,” she said. “I’ve seen women of all races, socio and economic categories and it’s a delightful practice. It reminds me of (her alma mater) Garfield High School and the mini-united nations that was there.”

Dr. Connell grew up and now practices medicine in a diverse community, but when she was an undergraduate at UW in the late 1960’s, that was not the case. “When I started (at UW) it was before the Minority Affairs program was developed,” she said. “We had our own little microcosm of African American and minority students. We made our own resources at that time, but we kind of felt isolated.”

Dr. Connell notes Bill Baker, the Financial Aid Director at the time, made scholarships, loans and grants available to minority students, but there was still a lack of support and a lack of diverse faculty. “It became obvious that there weren’t a lot of African American professors there, other minority professors or just people who had our life experiences,” she recalled. “So at that point we did charter the Black Student Union to try to address some of those needs. I think Dr. (Charles) Odegaard was a very insightful and honorable person to the point that he recognized the need. That might have been happening throughout the country but I think that he was one of the forerunners for that and then he hired Dr. Sam Kelly.”

The formation of the Black Student Union and the work of Dr. Odegaard and Dr. Kelly built the foundation for the OMA&D. UW is now recognized as a national leader in serving the needs of underrepresented minority students. All of that was made possible by people like Dr. Anita Connell who continues to pave the way for those coming behind her and at the same time, makes it a point to give back to her community.

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