Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean.
Susanne Salehi has always been an overachiever. For proof, there’s her undergraduate degrees from the University of Memphis in English and Anthropology and her minors in German and Women’s Students. She also has a Master’s degree in Medical Anthropology and is returning to school to receive a graduate degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She also works full-time at Southern College of Optometry, where she raises money for community engagement activities, manages special projects, and represents SCO in the community. She’s a one-woman army.
Born in Cookeville, TN, Susanne, 28, grew up in Bartlett. She’s been working in nonprofit since college, and she discovered unexpectedly that her calling was in nonprofit management after flirting with becoming a doctor. Susanne was hired last year as the Grants and Community Engagement Coordinator at SCO, where she has flourished as a behind-the-scenes brainiac in the department, taking on tasks and projects that take as much brains as brawn.
Her work is important because it extends the services of SCO into the community, helping the students become servant leaders in the community while allowing access to eye exams and glasses for people who otherwise might not have the opportunity. Her work, along with the work of her coworker Christine Weinreich, serves as a vital link between the college and Memphis. Literally, thousands of children and adults receive free eye screenings because of the work of her department.
We chose Susanne for several reasons, not only for her current work but also for her potential to be a great leader in Memphis in the years to come!
If you could describe Memphis in three words, what would they be?
Unexpected, hard-working, brilliant
What led you to work at Southern College of Optometry?
I originally planned to go into medicine, but I was coming to realize that medicine wasn’t the right choice for me. Don’t get me wrong – for six months, I volunteered in Regional One’s ER (Friday nights, from 8 pm to midnight) and it was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Dr. Michelle Surbrook was an incredible mentor and I learned so much from her, not just about the kind of physician I thought I wanted to be, but about the kind of person I hoped to become. I watched her save people’s lives, and it still humbles me to think about it. Medicine is an incredibly rewarding field, but it wasn’t the right choice for me.
When I learned of the SCO opportunity, I was working an entry-level position at the Church Health Center to have the flexibility to attend the University of Memphis part-time to take pre-med classes. Once I made the decision to stop pursuing pre-medical coursework, I knew I needed to focus on finding a career… and the SCO job posted a few weeks after I made that decision. It was karmic! The description sounded exactly like what I’d been pursuing for the past six years, and it really caught my attention. Writing has always been a passion, but I wanted to marry that with community impact. The opening at SCO was a perfect fit.
Community engagement is one of the priorities of SCO. What cool things do you get to work on in the community to help others?
I’m very privileged to be able to work at such an incredible essential healthcare provider in our community. SCO provides over $1.4 million dollars annually in uncompensated charitable care to Shelby County residents, and I had no idea that was the case before I started working there. Being part of something like that is awe-inspiring! As someone who practically grew up wearing glasses (from age six onward), I understand how critical it is to have the vision correction you need.
Part of my job is facilitating service opportunities for our students, which means that I talk to folks from all around town at organizations such as churches, schools, governmental organizations, and other nonprofits to coordinate our participation whenever possible. And when we can’t have volunteers physically present, we provide them with resources and print materials for their event. I love the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I know my work is helping to meet community needs AND our student service goals!
One of my favorite parts of my job is getting to coordinate our annual Eye Spy: A Day At the Zoo event. It’s a madhouse, and it takes over a hundred SCO volunteers to make it happen, but getting to see children actually engage with our students, staff, and faculty and learn about vision is incredible. It also gives me an outlet for my passion for logistics – coordinating a large-scale event is a particular kind of intense, but the joy of children and parents’ faces is something that stays with you.
It’s really cool getting to be part of Crosstown Concourse! SCO will open a first-of-its-kind interprofessional optometric educational clinic there next year. This kind of collaboration is new and exciting. I’m so thrilled to get to work on such a large project that’s going to benefit so many more people. Our Crosstown clinic enables us to see an additional 13,000+ patients per year, at times of day that we aren’t able to offer at our other locations, expanding access to care for so many more residents!
Lately, I’ve gotten to work on trying to find funding for MobilEYES, SCO’s mobile eye exam unit. With philanthropic support of only $78,000, the unit will be able to provide its services five days a week year round, rather than the three we’re currently limited to. I’ve had the chance to tour the unit and speak with the coordinator, who told me all about her experiences on board. For example, she saw a Kindergarten student receive glasses for the first time, who exclaimed, “I can finally see the words on the page!” This was after she wasn’t able to participate in school for the first two months of the year because she couldn’t see to read. Her encounter with MobilEYES changed her life. It’s these kinds of stories that inspire me and make me proud to work at SCO.
What is the favorite part of your job?
My job is fantastic. I get to do all kinds of different things, and I never have two days that are the I find myself developing grant proposals, researching available grants, managing community outreach requests, planning large-scale events, and managing our ongoing grants, to name a few integral pieces of my work. Honestly, it’s half writing and half herding cats – I have to gather information and request data from lots of different people, most of whom have other tasks as their job priority! That being said, I work with the most fantastic bunch of folks I could ever hope for, and they surprise me daily with their graciousness. And then there’s the impact. As I said before, I’ve always wanted a job where I could write AND make an impact. That’s a lot of what I get to do at SCO. I love the endless variety and the incredible coworkers, but at the end of the day, it’s the difference I get to make in my community as a part of the SCO team that inspires me most.
What do you like most about living in Memphis?
One of my favorite themes in life is the idea of the endless project, the continual act of becoming. To me, Memphis is a beautiful example of that principle. Watching the city grow has been one of my great joys. We are so lucky to have such beautiful outdoor resources so close by, and such an increase in bike lanes! The public art is hard to beat, too. Aside from all that, what I enjoy the very most is how the city is small enough that you can get involved in something you really care about and make a discernible difference. You’re not just a face in the crowd here, unless you want to be (hi, fellow introverts!).
What are your three favorite books (and why)?
- Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: I have such a weird fondness for this book. The writing is incredibly compelling and the hopeless characters enchant me. Everyone in the novel is so flawed and real.
- Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede: I realize this is a children’s book, but this is the book that made me a lifelong reader, and possibly the one that made me a lifelong feminist. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading this book to me. Cimorene, the protagonist, is a princess that decides being a princess isn’t terribly interesting, and she runs away to apprentice herself to a dragon.
- Dune by Frank Herbert: This science fiction novel was the first epic I read on my own. It shaped my life and was the first time I remember being consumed by literature. At nine years old, I read this book until the sun came up. Being a bookish creature, this would not be the last time it happened.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in Memphis?
One of the weirdest (and coolest) things I’ve seen in Memphis is the Meritan Midnight Classic in action. It’s a late-night 17-mile bike ride through the city, and there’s nothing like watching a sea of hundreds of other cyclists take over the roads. It’s dark, and most people have tricked out their bikes (and themselves) with various glowing paraphernalia; it’s absolutely surreal to bike with so many others down the roads, lit only by streetlights and bike lights.
What are your three favorite restaurants?
Café Keough – My rationale is simple here: there are macarons. Other than that, everything I’ve had there has been delicious. The environment is beautiful, too – since it’s in an old bank, it’s ornate, and the ceilings seem to go up forever.
Golden India – The atmosphere here is always subdued and comfortable, and their lamb korma is absolutely wonderful. This is my go-to comfort food spot.
Kabob International – Since it’s a bit of a drive for me, I don’t make it out here often, but the food is incredible. The baklava tastes like it should – not heavy and overloaded with honey, but light and flaky.
Who are three people destined to change Memphis (and why)?
Tami Sawyer: I’m so excited about her campaign, platform, and the enthusiasm she continues to generate. I can’t wait to see what she does next, and I am positive that she will be a strong figure for change in Memphis.
John Zeanah: His work on the Mid-South Greenprint is nothing short of incredible. Watching Memphis go from one of the most bike-unfriendly cities to one of the most improved in such a short timespan has been awe-inspiring. The city’s green spaces are changing, and much of that change is thanks to this man.
You, the reader. At the risk of sounding hokey, I think that everyone in the city is destined to alter it. Your attitudes and practices shape the place you live. If you take the time to engage in the causes you care about (volunteer! march! give!), your life will have a positive impact in the place that you live.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in Memphis, and what’s one way our readers can help solve it?
That’s tough. Memphis is a gem, but it’s built on challenge. While there are many areas for improvement, and lots of great folks tackling them, my vote has to go to poverty and homelessness, and the lack of opportunity that accompanies the two. And when you say, “How can I, an individual, alleviate poverty and homelessness in my city?” that sounds a little unrealistic. But there are so many fantastic nonprofits out there, doing good work – MIFA, CHOICES, OUTMemphis, the Dorothy Day House are just a few. Become a monthly donor somewhere. You don’t have to give much – $2, $5, $10 a month. Even better, give of yourself. Reach out to volunteer coordinators at these agencies and ask what you can do to help.