Illustrated portrait of Michael Go
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Growing up in Oakland as the son of a Chinese immigrant who toiled as a butcher for 45 years, Michael Go was discouraged from following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he was urged – rather strongly – to pursue a career in medicine.  

“It was drilled into me that I was going to do something in the medical profession, whether it be a doctor, a dentist, a pharmacist,” he says. “At that time, I was not even thinking of physical therapy.” 

Go was well into adulthood, and on a different career path, when he found his way to physical therapy (PT). More than four decades later, that decision has led to his being named the 2024 UCSF/SFSU Graduate Program in Physical Therapy Alum of the Year

Go gives credit for discovering PT to his cousin, Valerie Ng Taam, PT ’61, to whom he dedicated the award. Taam was just a child when her mother died, so Go’s mother helped raise her. 

“She was like my big sister,” Go says. “She was my hero.” 

Go had earned a Master of Public Health degree from UC Berkeley in 1971 with the intention of going into hospital administration, but he struggled finding work in the field, possibly due to racial bias. “I didn’t fit the profile of what people were looking for,” he says. 

Taam suggested that Go look into the field of PT. He did, and then some, applying to UCSF and changing his career path entirely. 

Taam died from leukemia at age 31. She was one of several essential figures in Go’s life for whom he will be forever grateful. 

Finding friends and mentors 

Go still lives in Oakland, where he was happy to grow up.  

“Oakland was a wonderful community,” he says. “It was diverse long before forced busing became a national movement – unlike Davis, where I went to college.”  

Attending UC Davis was a new opportunity for Asian Americans at the time. 

“I was the second generation to be allowed to attend the University of California, because prior to World War II, we couldn't go to universities, we couldn't vote in this country, and we couldn't live in certain neighborhoods,” he says. 

Go struggled badly during his freshman year, nearly flunking out. “I felt like a failure to my family,” he says. “I was embarrassed.”  

Salvation came in the form of the Aggies basketball team. A friend suggested Go apply to be a team manager. The job, along with head coach Joe Carlson and head athletic trainer Dick Lewis, allowed him to find a family – and himself. 

“They were like my adopted fathers in college,” Go says. “They taught me valuable lessons, encouraged me, and gave me confidence to be a better person.” 

After their deaths, Go endowed scholarships at UC Davis in the names of both men.  

Despite his admiration at the time for Lewis, Go had no idea that he would follow in his footsteps by becoming a certified athletic trainer along with earning his PT degree.  

Another major influence was Irene Gilbert, PhD, then the director of UCSF’s PT program. 

“Dr. Gilbert was very firm that as professionals, we had to respect our profession and focus on the patient,” Go says. “She represented integrity, honesty, and fighting to do the right thing.”  

He says Gilbert worked endlessly and tirelessly for the program until her death in 1983, yet never got enough credit for it. To help remedy that, Go also established an endowed scholarship in her name that has now helped fund the education of at least 10 students.  

“I’ve told the students at the white-coat ceremony and at graduation, the reason you’re sitting here and you’re graduating from UCSF is because of Irene Gilbert,” he says. 

The good times

With his PT training, Go spent three years at Stanford University working with football, basketball, soccer, tennis, and track athletes. He also volunteered as a trainer with UC Berkeley’s football team and spent a year working with the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League. “From that experience, I met some of the titans of athletic training,” Go says.

He also had a thriving private practice, Embarcadero Physical Therapy in the Financial District, where he worked with athletes and patients of all ages for nearly 30 years. 

Now in retirement, he reflects fondly on the career that those cherished friends, family, and mentors helped him achieve. 

“To have the experience I did for those 40 years ... I was blessed,” Go says. “Looking back on it now, it was the best of times. Of course, the most important degree I have is a PhD in life. I’ve had a wonderful life.” 

He was deeply moved when he got the letter notifying him that he was receiving the alumni award – and that he would receive the kind of tribute he has so often given others. 

“To be honest,” he says, “I broke down and cried.”

Award recipients featured in this video about mentorship:
• Hibret Hailu Benjamin, DDS ’02 - Dental Alumni Association Medal of Honor
• William Carroll, DDS ’80 - Alumni Mentor Award
• Michael P. Go, PT ’74, MPH - Graduate Program in Physical Therapy Alum of the Year
Find out what else awardee honorees shared with us.
Access the videos