doctorsWhen this year’s reunion rolls around at Vanderbilt University, alumni from Vanderbilt’s Schools of Nursing and Medicine will gather not only to renew enduring friendships, but also to celebrate the successful fundraising that many classes have undertaken to fund scholarships for deserving students who might not otherwise be able to attend the Schools of Medicine and Nursing.

Many members of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) class of 1986, for example, are not only paying for their own children to attend college or graduate school, they are also contributing to a class scholarship to help future students attend VUSM — a cause that’s vastly important to them. So far, 34 class members have contributed more than $120,000 —contributions ranging from $50 to $25,000. The Class of 2001 recently became the youngest class to reach the $25,000 mark.

Their motivation is simple: a strong feeling of gratitude to VUSM and the belief that medicine shouldn’t be a profession available to only the most fortunate.

“We remember fondly our time spent in Light Hall and the Medical Center, and we appreciate close friendships among our class and the support and excellent teaching from our faculty mentors,” said Rachel Mace, M.D., associate professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“We value the strong foundation in medicine and lifelong learning that began during our years here and we hope to support the strong traditions of Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine and assist current and future students to learn in an equally collegial atmosphere.”

The cost of education has increased dramatically at the nation’s 141 accredited medical schools, Mace said, adding that she completed medical school with little debt because her parents were able to provide significant financial assistance.

Because of that she was able to choose residency training without financial worries. “We all benefit from attracting medical students and training physicians from all socioeconomic backgrounds, but we need to provide scholarship support to make it feasible. “Students may feel pressured to pursue more lucrative specialties within medicine in order to pay back their debt rather than choosing the field that excites them the most,” Mace said.

The average debt for Vanderbilt medical graduates in 2013 was $134,000, and about 20 percent of the class had a debt of more than $200,000, said Richard Johnston Jr., M.D., professor of Pediatrics and associate dean for Research Development at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a member of the VUSM Class of 1961.

Medical students often have undergraduate debt on top of medical school debt, and in addition to tuition and fees they have to come up with about $5,000 for traveling and residency interviews, he said.

Johnston credits the strength and “extraordinary support” of the faculty given to both him and his son, Richard III, a 1989 VUSM graduate, as the reasons that he has given back to Vanderbilt. Johnston received a scholarship for his first year of medical school, but had to work during the remaining three years to help with cost.

“Scholarships are a particularly favored target of giving because alumni recognize that the tuition and support costs are now so high that some students cannot attend without scholarship help,” said Johnston, adding that scholarships can attract strong students who might not otherwise choose Vanderbilt, or who might have chosen another profession.

“Class scholarships have become a lynchpin in the financial support of our students. As the beneficiary of a scholarship myself, I have a deep appreciation for those who give to support the aspirations of others. That our alumni would be so committed to assist current and future generations is a testament to their generosity, values and confidence in our future,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

Even recent graduating classes can establish class scholarships. Brian Drolet, M.D., a member of the VUSM Class of 2009, received a Dean’s Scholarship when he attended VUSM and is eager to help fund scholarships for future students. “Having significant debt at the end of training is an incredible stressor on a resident,” Drolet said.

“High debt can change the career path of a medical student as well. Someone considering primary care or pediatrics with a debt of $300,000 may think twice about this choice given the future debt-to-income ratio. A scholarship can help a student choose one school over another and can help keep Vanderbilt competitive.”

The School of Nursing alumni are also in full swing with Reunion 2014 fundraising. Kate Ballantine, a spring VUSN Alumni Association scholarship recipient, said she is grateful for the scholarship support. She was chosen for her international and community service, both as a Peace Corp volunteer in Senegal (in West Africa), and her volunteer work with midwives at a health center. She is one of only two students at VUSN pursuing a dual degree in midwifery and family health.

I was surprised and really, really grateful,” she said. “There were other great people with wonderful backgrounds they could have chosen for the scholarship, which will take a good chunk of my loans away,” she said.

Ballantine, one of two volunteer VUSN coordinators for the Vanderbilt-run Shade Tree Clinic, also works on campus as a swim instructor to help pay for her education. “My dual program is a wonderful program, and expensive, but it will be worth it. For right now, every little bit helps and this scholarship is more than just a little bit. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders,” she said.

Although she plans to work stateside, she also hopes to use her VUSN training to help train others in developing countries. “The village I worked in, Kayemor, is 12 miles from any paved roads and serves a population of 18,000. I plan on going back. I told them I’d take what I learned and come back and teach them. That’s important to me.”

She also plans to give back to VUSN as soon as she’s able. “If I can be in a position to help other people in the future, I will. Isn’t that what nurses are supposed to do? Help people who need help?”

(Article written by Nancy Humphrey for the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Reporter)