Dreams No Longer Deferred

The new Raymond Nester Sweeney bolster existing financial aid and open the door to the top students in the nation

Whether it’s a dedication to public health, a desire to provide basic medical care, or the financial leap for those who are the first in their families to attend college, students in the College of Medicine sometimes need financial and educational support to pursue their passions and achieve their full potential.

That’s the impetus behind two new initiatives of the college—the Raymond Nester Sweeney Scholarship Program and the renovation of the College of Medicine Building (see story, page 20). “The college already provides our students with an outstanding education. We want to make it even better, while reducing the financial pressures on them when they graduate,” says Dimitri Azar, MD, MBA, dean of the college.

The Sweeney Scholarship Program is named for the late Raymond Nester Sweeney, MD ’68, a radiologist who spent most of his career practicing in Terre Haute, Ind. Grateful for the education at the College of Medicine that he regarded as the key to his success as a physician, and also quite successful in investing, Sweeney made an estate gift of nearly $20 million to the college, which has created an endowment fund that is being used in part to provide student scholarships. The fund also will be used to establish endowed professorships to help the college recruit and retain top faculty.

“We are trying to strengthen our ability to recruit high-achieving students, especially those from underrepresented minority groups, to the college by allowing them to focus on their education and fulfill their potential to become leaders in academic medicine,” Azar says.

The funds raised for the Sweeney Scholarships, which will be awarded for the first time in 2012-13, will enable the college to increase both the number and the dollar amount of scholarships overall. “We want to ease the cost of education to students so we can graduate capable, gifted, hard-working and compassionate students, particularly those who plan to work in underserved areas or pursue careers in primary care medicine,” Azar says.

Twenty-three students currently receive full tuition scholarships, and that number will increase as students begin receiving scholarships funded by Sweeney’s gift next year. On average, scholarships total about $5,600. In the past year, 128 students out of the 1,400 enrolled in the college received scholarships.

As such, the Sweeney Scholarships will ramp up an already strong commitment on the college’s part to supporting students like M4 Nneka Madu, who was drawn to medicine by a desire to make a positive difference in patients’ lives. The eldest of five children of a pharmacist and a nurse who moved to the U.S. from their native Nigeria when she was 2, Madu discovered her calling when she accompanied her mother on a trip back to Nigeria at age 13.

“When she goes back, she brings people medicine and goes to see people who are sick,” she says. “I felt overwhelmed by the problems the country was facing, but watching my mom, I felt the one field in which you could actually make a difference, even one on one, was medicine.”

A fter graduating from Yale University, where Madu majored in the history of science and medicine, she chose the College of Medicine for the opportunities it afforded to provide care to an urban population. She was also offered a dean’s scholarship, which covers the full cost of her tuition and fees for four years.

“The college is a great medical school. And the scholarship definitely swayed my decision,” she says. “I was absolutely elated. I felt I could do whatever I want because it’s what I love to do—and not worry about paying back loans.”

Madu plans to specialize in anesthesiology and has spent part of her fourth year in an externship helping anesthesiology residents cover overnight calls in the obstetrics and gynecology service at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. Her experience has included performing preoperative patient evaluations, assisting in the operating room and setting up epidurals.

“Anything that you do has an instant result. If you give an epidural, patients’ pain goes away. If you have someone who’s failing in the OR, you can do something and try to fix it,” she says. “There’s also all that mental work. You’re always thinking, ‘What could go wrong; what’s my next step; what’s my backup plan?’”

Madu plans to return to Nigeria probably once or twice a year to teach or otherwise contribute to the medical field, something she’ll be free to do because of the financial assistance she’s received. “It means the world to me,” she says. “It opens up so many possibilities that wouldn’t have been possible without the scholarship.”

Juleigh Nowinski Konchak, a fourth-year student with a passion for public health that she first explored as an aide to then-Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama, is also at the College of Medicine in part because she earned a dean’s scholarship.

After graduating from Northwestern University in 2003 with a degree in education and social policy, Konchak—who grew up in Palos Park, Ill., a suburb southwest of Chicago—landed an internship with Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.

As the campaign gained traction, Konchak soon found herself working full time as the deputy director of scheduling, and after the election, she moved to Washington to work in Obama’s senate office, assisting him with policy issues.

“I worked on a variety of policy areas—veterans’ affairs, education— and [her preference] slowly whittled itself down to solely health policy. It was what I was most interested in,” she says.

During this time, she worked with Dora Hughes, MD, MPH, now a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who rekindled her previous desire to go to medical school. Konchak, who had begun college as a pre-med student, applied to medical schools and chose the College of Medicine, drawn by a desire to return home to Chicago, to work with underserved populations— and due to the offer of a dean’s scholarship, which covers the full cost of her tuition and fees for four years. By alleviating the need for her to take out hefty student loans, the scholarship is making it easier for Konchak to pursue her chosen medical specialty, family medicine.

“I chose a specialty that means I won’t be making the big bucks in the future, and I’m confident that I would have done that even if I did have loans, but it makes it easier,” she says.

“I love the public health and prevention focus of family medicine. It aligns very well with the work I’ve done outside of medicine and my passions in that area,” continues Konchak, who plans to combine practice in a community health setting with public health policy work. “I do want to be in an underserved setting. My interests in medicine are deeply rooted in social justice.”

S cholarships are what enable some students to attend medical school in the first place. Concern about the cost of medical school and student loan debt weighed heavily on thirdyear student Anthony Pantoja before he enrolled. Neither of his parents completed high school, although his mother, a former waitress, eventually earned her GED and went on to get an associate’s and bachelor’s degree en route to becoming a systems analyst.

Pantoja’s father, however, stopped going to school in second grade and viewed college warily. “He saw a lot of people who went to college, dropped out and had student loans, and worked at the same restaurant he did,” Pantoja explains. “He didn’t want me and my brother and sister to go to college, and he wasn’t happy about me going to medical school.”

Under that set of circumstances, receiving a dean’s scholarship was especially reassuring for Pantoja. “I don’t have to take out student loans other than for normal living expenses,” he says. “I knew I wanted to go to medical school, and I was willing to take out the loans, even though I already had student loans from undergraduate school. The fact that I got school covered is unbelievable. I’m very thankful. I plan on donating back at least the same amount to the college. I want to show how grateful I am because it was extremely helpful.”

A native of Gurnee, Ill., halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, Pantoja attended University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he changed majors several times before settling on molecular and cellular biology. Inspired by the pre-med students in his classes, he researched the possibility of a medical career, in part by taking an emergency medical technician class and volunteering in the emergency room of a local hospital.

T hese experiences confirmed that medicine was his chosen profession. “I like the dynamic of medicine. It’s always changing. There’s always new science, new ways to treat people. You always have to be on top of something,” Pantoja says.

Although he’s still going through his clinical rotations and has yet to choose a specialty, so far he’s been particularly taken with surgery. “You get such direct results,” Pantoja says. “With other fields it might take years sometimes. I’m a hands-on kind of guy, and I like to see things done right away. You get that sense of satisfaction when you do surgery.”

Like his fellow dean’s scholars, Garth Walker envisions a strong focus on community service being part of his medical career. “I always felt I was one of the luckiest persons alive, so I always try to find ways to give back whenever I can,” says Walker, a second year medical student. “Medicine is the ultimate way of giving back.”

Walker grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, the son of a dentist and a real-estate agent. He spent seventh and eighth grade at a private boarding school in Jamaica, his parents’ native land, an experience that gave him a vivid sense of his good fortune. “Anytime you go to a Third World country, you see poverty right in front of you,” he observes.

After graduating from Chicago’s Whitney Young High School, Walker attended University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign earning a degree in economics while also completing the pre-med curriculum. After graduating, he spent a year working in Washington for Turning the Page, a nonprofit organization that works with schools and parents to advance education.

“I would organize and run workshops for parents about things like how to help their kids with homework, how to help them prepare for standardized tests [and how to encourage] healthy eating,” Walker explains.

During that time, he also applied to medical schools, choosing the College of Medicine both for the dean’s scholarship and the Urban Medicine Program, which offers a specialized curriculum to prepare physicians to work in the inner city.

“Medical school with full tuition definitely wasn’t something I was expecting,” Walker says. “It’s a reminder to stay motivated and give it my all for everything I do in school. It also shows how much the college values its students.”

Walker, who serves as the community service chair of the college’s chapter of the Student National Medical Association, expects to work in an underserved setting, most likely an inner-city community and possibly internationally, as well.

“One of the most appealing things about medicine is you can learn from many different people from many different backgrounds and deliver care to many different people from many different backgrounds,” he reflects. “You can work in a rural area or the inner city; you can be in a private practice or a public hospital. Thanks to the dean’s scholarship, no matter what I decide to go into, the financial aspect won’t play as large a role as it otherwise would have.”

By increasing its ability to offer scholarships, the College of Medicine will be able to recruit more outstanding students like Konchak, Pantoja, Madu and Walker and to give them the financial freedom to work in the areas where they feel they can have the greatest impact.

“Ultimately, we hope that providing more scholarships will lead, in turn, to more of our students being able to provide high-quality care where it’s most needed,” Azar says. “In the end, addressing the financial needs of our students will help the college fulfill its mission to address the medical needs of the people of Illinois.”