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Joe Mayerle, Erin Peterson, and Travis Olives are three first-year students who were named Dean’s Scholars.

The Dean’s Scholars Society is helping promising students stay close to home

Medical School Dean Deborah Powell admits it: It’s been a while since she was in medical school. Still, she’s definitely in touch with the concerns of today’s medical students. In fact, Powell is tackling one of their biggest concerns—skyrocketing tuition—head on.

And for good reason. Since 1984, tuition rates have doubled at medical schools across the country, leading many students to take on enormous loans. At the University of Minnesota, spiraling costs and uncertain government support have resulted in tuition rates that are even higher than average. Last year’s graduating class carried an average debt load of $119,868.

Most medical students at the University of Minnesota get some scholarship aid, Powell says, but in relatively small amounts. “If you have tuition exceeding $25,000 plus annual costs of more than $40,000, and you get a scholarship of $5,000—which is one of our larger scholarships—that’s not very much,” she says.

That concern led Powell to present this pressing challenge to board members of the Minnesota Medical Foundation. She quickly found some enthusiastic listeners. Richard Lindstrom, M.D., an ophthalmologist and donor who earned his own medical degree at the University, immediately responded to the call and helped conceive the Dean’s Scholars Society. He also became the very first to contribute to it.

The program is designed to keep Minnesota’s best and brightest students in the state by offering a few full-tuition scholarships each year. The plan calls for each scholarship to be funded by four donors, each committing $25,000, for a total of $100,000 over four years.

“We know that if you go to the medical school in your state and stay in residency programs in your state, you tend to practice in your state,” Powell says. “If you go out of state, you’re less likely to come back. We can’t just let our most promising students leave Minnesota because they’re getting better scholarship packages elsewhere.”

Debt may also affect the type of medicine students choose to practice. Despite the nationwide shortage of primary care physicians, Powell acknowledges that some students who might like to pursue family practice instead choose a higher-paying specialty so they can pay back their loans faster.

That’s something that Minnesota simply cannot afford, she says. By removing the threat of massive medical school debt, the scholarship program also allows these select students to follow the medical paths they truly desire.

And there’s yet another advantage. University President Robert Bruininks has set forth an ambitious University goal for the next decade: to become one of the world’s top three public research universities. The Medical School will play a large role in achieving that goal, and initiatives like the Dean’s Scholars Society can help propel the school to the top. By making an effort to keep Minnesota’s best medical students, the University is showing that it cares about what student loan debt is doing to professional choices and is addressing the problem in a way that matters to those affected by it.

Just ask the three first-year students who received Dean’s Scholars Society scholarships this year. They’ll tell you that it makes a world of difference.

Making the decision easy

As a kid, Joe Mayerle was pretty sure that he’d be a physician when he grew up. He had always been fascinated by science. He once convinced his pediatrician to make him a slide of his own blood so he could take it home and examine it under his toy microscope. And he watched the children’s show Newton’s Apple on PBS religiously.

But what really amazed Mayerle as he got older was the healing power of medicine. He spent the last two summers helping with clinical research in the emergency department at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). Working in a nursing home, volunteering with the homeless in Minnesota and Boston, and shadowing pediatricians in a public hospital in Mexico City have also shown him that it takes much more than science to address the individual needs of each patient.

In considering medical schools to help him achieve those goals, the University of Minnesota rose to the top. He had great experiences with the faculty at HCMC and wanted to continue in those relationships. His family and girlfriend are here, too.

But he had a tough decision to make. Mayerle was a finalist for a full-tuition medical school scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis. “I couldn’t just walk away from a really appealing offer like that, no matter where I wanted to go,” he says. Before he had to choose, he contacted the University of Minnesota and explained his dilemma.

Soon after, Mayerle got a call from Becker offering a full-tuition scholarship. “That made the whole decision very simple,” he says.

Mayerle’s scholarship is made possible by a number of donors, including Dr. Richard and Jacalyn Lindstrom, the first to contribute to the Dean’s Scholars Society; Minnesota Medical Foundation board chair Beth Erickson and her late husband, Donovan; and Catherine Henry, the foundation’s vice president of marketing and communications. Other donors include Larry Bentson, a member of the University Pediatrics Foundation board of directors, and Medical School alumnus William E. Bernstein, M.D., and his wife, Paula.

Mayerle is currently considering a career in emergency medicine. He’s had lots of exposure in that area and enjoys the fast pace of the emergency room. But he says one of the best things about being named a Dean’s Scholar is the freedom to choose the path he feels compelled to take—without worrying about debt.

“I don’t feel pressured to choose a high-paying specialty,” he says. “I’ve been given the freedom to pursue whatever I feel is the best way for me to practice medicine, and that is a fantastic feeling.”

Back to her roots

Erin Peterson has always planned ahead. Even in elementary school, she wrote papers about becoming a doctor and prepared by putting bandages on her stuffed animals. While pursuing her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, molecular biology, and chemistry at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she took classes that would help her get into medical school and kept a 3.98 grade point average doing it. When she chose to remain in Duluth, she was selecting a medical school that would help her fulfill a lifelong goal: returning to her hometown in rural Minnesota to become a primary care physician.

Now that she has started medical school, Peterson has had to shift her focus to planning for the short term. A medical student’s schedule, she has quickly learned, does not always go according to plan. Between lectures, labs, and visits to preceptors, her daily routine is anything but routine.

Flexibility is just one of the things she has learned so far. “I’m amazed at how quickly my classmates and I are catching on to the material,” Peterson says. “There are ‘micro-moments’ when we feel discouraged, but we shake ourselves out of it.”

Peterson still keeps her sights on her long-term goal. She tries to visit her tiny hometown of Ashby at least once a month. (She often asks her fiancé to drive so she can spend those four hours reviewing class notes.) She hopes to participate in the Medical School’s Rural Physician Associate Program during her third year in order to get some hands-on experience and to learn how health care is organized in the area where she’s planning to practice.

“I loved being in a small town,” Peterson says. “I’ve never really imagined myself anywhere else.”

And besides, living in Ashby would put her near her career role model. Peterson has looked up to her family physician, David Sanderson, M.D.—who practices with Fergus Falls Medical Group PA—since the day he delivered her. He has practiced both family medicine and obstetrics during his career, a combination Peterson is eyeing herself.

Whichever specialty she chooses, she definitely wants to practice in a rural area. Her scholarship through the Dean’s Scholars Society, which is funded by the Minnesota Medical Foundation, gives her the ability to do just that without having to worry about how she’ll be able to keep up with loan payments. Not that she would have done anything differently otherwise. “I wouldn’t have let anything hold me back,” she says.

A call to serve

When 28-year-old Travis Olives finishes medical school in 2009, he’ll have three advanced degrees and a wide range of textbook titles on his bookshelves. And after all that work, he’s convinced that he’ll be well equipped to help the underserved.

Olives started his undergraduate career taking pre-med classes at Minnesota’s Carleton College, but his path took a few turns before he started his formal medical training last fall. At Carleton he was sidetracked by the politics of Latin America and decided to major in Latin American studies. He found a job teaching Spanish and English to Liberian students at Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis, which he says was challenging from many aspects.

Not all of his students’ challenges were academic. “There were a lot of medical and social-service issues following them into the classroom that hindered their learning,” Olives says.

He knew he was working with the right population, just in the wrong capacity. So he went back to school.

In 2003 Olives started working as a Spanish interpreter at the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic, a student-run clinic in Minneapolis that provides medical services for the neighborhood’s uninsured and underinsured. He was impressed by the clinic’s staff and mission and continues to volunteer there today. He says it’s a great place to combine his knowledge in education, public health, and medicine.

“That’s the kind of place where I want to end up,” Olives says. “I’ve had so many opportunities in life. I think I need to be giving back in one way or another.”

When Olives decided to go to medical school, he applied “everywhere under the sun.” But when he was accepted to the University of Minnesota Medical School, he stopped accepting all other interviews. It made sense for his family, he says, and it would allow him to keep working at the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic.

Olives hadn’t heard of the Dean’s Scholars Society when he got a congratulatory phone call from Marilyn Becker, Ph.D., the school’s director of admissions. He feared she was going to tell him that he wasn’t accepted after all. Instead, she had great news to share: the awarding of a full-tuition scholarship. Olives’s scholarship is funded by Earl Bakken, a visionary founder of Medtronic, Inc., as part of a $200,000 gift allocated for the dean’s discretionary use.

Although the scholarship didn’t affect his choice of medical schools, Olives says it makes a difference in the type of practice he sees himself in down the road.

“It means that I’ll be able to focus on primary care,” he says. “That’s the really important thing.” 

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