From a young age, Brooklyn native Hewett Chiu was fascinated by the human heart. He remembers being amazed when he walked through a giant human heart on a childhood museum visit. And at just 15 years old, he became a certified CPR instructor with the Red Cross.
Unfortunately, Chiu soon had a very different experience with heart health. His grandmother, who had previously had heart problems, died when he was in high school. Her passing tore a hole in Chiu’s tightly knit family. “Growing up, there was just my mom, my dad, my grandmother and me,” Chiu said. “We were very close and did everything together.”
Chiu’s family soon got more bad news: his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Chiu remembers the challenges his parents faced navigating the health care system. “We got help from social workers, but everything was so confusing,” he said. “I think at a certain point, my father just basically shut down.” Chiu’s mother died in just a few months.
After high school, Chiu attended New York University with help from an Asian & Pacific Islander American Fund scholarship, funded by the United Health Foundation’s Diverse Scholars Initiative. At NYU, Chiu founded the Academy of Medical & Public Health Services (AMPHS), a nonprofit health service organization with a threefold mission: to identify barriers to health and wellness in underserved immigrant communities, to coordinate needed primary care with social assistance and to deliver care with empathy to underserved New Yorkers.
Chiu said the Diverse Scholars Initiative helped to shape his interest in public health policy. “The funding from the scholarship obviously helped with my undergraduate education, but the real value was getting to learn about complex health policy at a national level,” he said.
After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience and a liberal arts degree in cultural and social foundations, Chiu continued his education at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration.
Chiu currently serves as executive director at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where he works to implement the city’s comprehensive mental health plan. In his role, Chiu is improving the mental health system by helping high-risk, vulnerable populations gain greater access to culturally competent care and addressing industry workforce shortages by developing the next generation of public mental health clinicians.
“There are tremendous challenges and it’s up to us to create new pathways,” he said. “We’re working to take cultural understanding to the next level, appreciating cultural differences in a way that helps us diversify our health care workforce and really connect with the people we serve.”