For Dr. Alberto Coustasse, who grew up in Chile, and Dr. Doohee Lee, who came to the U.S. from South Korea, the path to citizenship was long and sometimes arduous, but the friends and colleagues took another step together earlier this month when they took their oath of citizenship at a ceremony held in Charleston.
They’re faculty members in the department of Management, Marketing and MIS, with veritable alphabets trailing their names marking multiple degrees—Coustasse is a Dr.P.H., M.D., M.B.A. and M.P.H. and Lee is a B.P.A., M.A., M.P.H. and Ph.D. Both are prolific writers and researchers with an impressive number of publications—together they’ve totaled more than 175 papers, presentations, abstracts and other scholarly works. They’ve even occasionally collaborated as coauthors.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Coustasse entered the School of Medicine at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, where he earned an M.D. and graduated with honors. In Chile, professional schools such as medicine and the law are entered straight out of high school with five years of classes and training and then two years of solid practice, he explains. Also, “internship” and “residency” are reversed in terms of meaning in Chile. Just prior to his entering medical school in March, 1985, he participated in three months of DNA research training at the Cancer Center at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, a stint that would eventually help refocus his professional life.
After medical school, it was expected that he would train in internal medicine, but there was a wrinkle in that plan. He had no interest in internal medicine and instead opted to return to the School of Administration and Economic Sciences at Pontifical Catholic University, this time to earn an Executive M.B.A. The class was very intense and competitive, and, he says, “I had to work quite a bit at the baseline, which was at the engineer level and I didn’t know anything about that.” It also was a diverse class, he remembers. Out of 50 members, there were 44 engineers, two physicians, 2 architects, an agronomist and a veterinarian.
In 1995 Coustasse went to work as the chief executive officer for the Health and Rehabilitation Centers of the National Defense Pension Fund in Santiago, the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), he says. He was responsible for health care management analysis and administration of health care services for senior veterans. The free hospitals belonged to the Chilean government and in addition to medical benefits featured optical, dental and outpatient centers. After eight months as CEO, he became the chief medical officer. “I stepped down to become the medical doctor in the VA. I did more technical work and I also did forensic service with DNA for the U.S. FBI.” In addition, he worked in the clinic for four years as a family physician.
By any standards, his rise had been meteoric and therein lay a problem. “I was 28 years old and I reached my ceiling too fast, that was my problem,” he says. He had also reached a crossroad, but his career path was about to take another turn, one that would lead him to the U.S. and ultimately to Marshall.
One day while he was CEO, a group of American visitors from the American Embassy came to tour the facilities he oversaw. They were particularly interested in learning about studies involving spine care. “I was working in geriatrics and we had a lot of strokes and spine-related injuries so that had some relevance for them,” he recalls. One of the visitors invited him to go to Fort Worth, Texas, to visit the University of North Texas Health Science Center. “My boss wasn’t happy that I had an M.B.A.,” he says, “because in Chile we’re very public health oriented and we follow the British health care system. He was pushing me to either go to London and get another master’s or go to Fort Worth.”
Coustasse seemed London bound until one of the American visitors who had toured did an “intellectual kidnapping,” he says, laughing. The visitor was the CEO of a local hospital in Fort Worth who offered to pay his tuition, fees and an apartment next to the University of North Texas. It was an offer Coustasse couldn’t refuse, so in 1999 he earned a Master of Public Health from UNT Health Science Center and topped that off with a doctoral degree in Public Health at UNT in 2004. Both degrees were completed with perfect 4.0 grade averages. Once his degrees were completed, he stayed on at UNT’s School of Public Health for the next 10 years, where he held a number of positions, including research associate, and research assistant professor.
Coustasse’s first brush with Marshall came in 2004 when he attended a conference sponsored by the health care program of the College of Business. An opportunity to join the business faculty came in 2008 and he’s now an associate professor of Management, Marketing and MIS.
“I liked the area from my visit,” he says. “The hills and the greenery remind me very much of southern Chile, where my family vacationed when I was growing up. This seemed like a safe area, a good place to raise a family.” That was important as he and his wife, Soledad, an R. N. who works at the Charleston Area Medical Center, are the parents of a daughter, Simone, 10. And Feb. 5 was a red letter day for the whole Coustasse family as Soledad, also a native of Chile, became a U.S. citizen as well.
With family members both in Germany and Chile, the family makes time as they can to visit both countries. But their hearts are still here. “This is a great country,” Coustasse says reflectively. “I have grown professionally here. My daughter was born here, so she’s a citizen. We thought it was a good idea and time to become citizens ourselves.”
As a young man Doohee Lee came to this country from South Korea bent on getting an education, thanks to supportive parents who urged him to come to the U.S. to study. With a B.P.A. degree in Public Administration from Soongsil University in hand, he enrolled at Wichita State University, where he earned a M.A. in Political Science. Later he received a M.P.H. and Ph.D. in Health Care Management and Policy, both from the University of Texas School of Public Health. Faculty positions followed at Columbia State University (Georgia) where he was Assistant Professor of Public Health, then to Cleveland State University where he was an Assistant Professor of Health Care Management. He came to Marshall in 2009, where he is currently an associate professor , teaching health care management.
“I came to the U.S. with a lot of hope that I could get a doctorate degree and then go back home,” he says. “But I liked it here; we feel safe and there are more opportunities here so we decided to stay. I have achieved a lot of my goals.” The language barrier posed some problems early on but Lee persevered and with patience and practice largely overcame the language barrier. “I was having a hard time communicating,” he admits honestly. But good communication with his classes—he’s been teaching in a university setting for 13 years—“and with my neighbors” he says with a smile—helped bring down those barriers. “Language is part of the cultural shock for many immigrants coming to the U.S. You have to work to overcome it.”
His wife, Hana Lee, R.N., M.S.N., C.P.N.P., also a native of South Korea, has already filed paperwork to gain her citizenship as well. “She decided to let me be the trial balloon,” he says with a laugh. Hana earned her M.S.N. degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP) from the University of Cincinnati and the two later met and married while they were in Georgia. They have two daughters, Annette, 9, and Clare, 7, whose busy schedules are the center of the family’s life.
“I feel I am privileged to raise kids, but they are growing up so fast,” he reflects. “We do a lot of things together … we play games, the girls take swimming, tennis, and ice skating lessons, we do a lot of physical activities.” And the parents have been known to hit the pool and the rink on occasion, although the girls can now outskate him on the ice, he admits. Both girls play the violin and they participate in the West Virginia Youth Symphony Cadet Strings program with weekly music lessons. “They’re involved in a number of extracurricular activities and we want them to do things that are important to them, but mainly we want them to enjoy whatever they choose to do.”
Reflecting on his new citizenship, Lee says that coming to the U.S. as a young man he felt great hope and with the achievement of his degrees he’s been able to do what he likes best professionally—teaching and research. That’s why he decided to remain in this country. “Every year about one million people become citizens and now I am one of them. While I’ve achieved many things, it was my education that gave me the start. I want to pay back to this country someday. In the words of Steve Jobs, I want to ‘stay hungry and foolish.’ Since I have been at Marshall I have felt comfortable; it’s like being home. People here have been very helpful and welcoming. They have given me so many congratulations on becoming a citizen. Getting my citizenship gave me the hope that I can raise my children as Americans. And one other good thing: I am now registered to vote, and I will!”
Photo: Dr. Doohee Lee (left) and Dr. Alberto Coustasse, both of whom recently became U.S. citizens, pose with an American flag outside the administration building on the South Charleston campus.