Janet Southerland ’82, Distinguished Service Medal Citation

Janet Southerland ’82 (’84 BSDH, ’89 DDS, ’94 MPH, ’05 PhD). Photo by Ray Black III

Janet Southerland loves learning. Her five degrees from Carolina might have given that away.

School was a refuge for her from an early age. She was the fourth of 10 children born of parents who didn’t have a high school education. She dreamed of becoming a dental hygienist, though no one in her family had gone to college. A guidance counselor recognized her potential and steered her to Carolina. That path opened doors for her, and she has devoted much of her career to opening doors for others.

After working her way up through leadership positions at various universities, Southerland is now a professor and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. But that short-and-sweet synopsis of her success belies the challenges she met and conquered at each stage of her career through determination, a strong work ethic and an equally strong faith.

Southerland grew up in Mecklenburg County in the 1960s as Charlotte battled desegregation and riots broke out over busing. She did well in public school, despite suffering adverse health conditions. She arrived at the relatively peaceful campus in Chapel Hill in the late 1970s — a 17-year-old who was far from college ready — and participated in UNC’s college preparatory program Upward Bound. Her freshman counselor encouraged her through an 18-credit-hour semester that set the standard for the next four years, though she had to persevere through more illness.

Emerging with a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1982, Southerland still wanted to be a dental hygienist. She applied to the dental school and was accepted into the dental hygiene program. As she was finishing her BSDH in 1984, the dental school recruited her into the dentistry program. Health problems continued to plague her, but by 1989, Southerland earned her dentistry degree. She remained at UNC for a residency and fellowship in hospital dentistry, then added a master’s degree in public health in 1994.

Friends recognized early on that Southerland doesn’t quit. Somewhere along the way, she got in the habit of shoring up herself and others facing challenges with the admonition: “Take an Advil.” No matter the trouble, she had confidence they could get through it.

After completing a doctorate in oral biology at Carolina in 2005, Southerland chaired the hospital dentistry program at UNC, directed the hospital dental clinic and was chief of oral medicine for the next 11 years. Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry lured her to Nashville, Tennessee, as a professor and dean. She chaired the school’s institutional review board and was a co-investigator of the NIH-funded Meharry Translational Research Center.

Next, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston appointed her vice president for interprofessional education, institutional effectiveness and health education. She also was a professor in the department of nutrition metabolism and rehabilitative sciences and a clinical professor in the department of surgery, until she accepted the vice chancellorship at LSU.

Southerland demands excellence of herself and others. She waves aside excuses with a straightforward: “My expectation is …” and helps people get back on track with a gentle: “Let me help you understand … .”

Her faith guides her, friends say. Southerland persists in doing right by others, regardless of their attitude toward her. In her relationships with family and friends, she goes the extra mile, literally, driving over the mountains and back to celebrate a special day with a friend in North Carolina when she was in Tennessee, then making the trip again the next weekend to share in another friend’s event. She never complained about the effort. Fun follows her around, and she invites everyone to join her.

Mindful of the advantages her education has afforded her, Southerland is committed to helping others succeed. She chairs the Black Alumni Reunion’s Light on the Hill Society scholarship program. She adds layers of support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure the next generation of Black dentists is present in America. She focuses her research on impoverished communities that other studies overlook.

Southerland has touched the lives of many people. She has smoothed a path for students and provided dental care through volunteering with a health team visiting Cuba, in Remote Area Medical clinics in the U.S. and in Missions of Mercy clinics. She is active in federal programs to expand access to equitable health care across the country.

In 2003, Southerland received the Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumna Award. She has served on advisory boards and remains active in professional associations. Friends marvel at her ease of balancing family, research, dental practice, administrative duties and professional commitments.

She’s folksy, frank and honest. A colleague notes she doesn’t mouth platitudes; she delivers. She doesn’t let a mountain get in her way.

The Distinguished Service Medal is presented by the Carolina Alumni Board of Directors.

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