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Scholarship Winner | Curt Nordgaard: A diversity of experience

Second-year medical student Curt Nordgaard spends some of his free time organizing fundraising events to benefit health-related projects overseas. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Music, literature, travel, foreign languages, and simple curiosity. These were some of the things W. Albert Sullivan, M.D., valued most, says his widow, Theresa Sullivan.

She helps administer the Albert Sullivan Endowed Scholarship fund, created by an anonymous Medical School alumnus to honor the longtime educator and associate dean of student affairs, who died in 1990. The scholarship helps support students who are not only promising future physicians but also “well-rounded people,” says Theresa, who contributes regularly to the fund.

“Sully,” as many knew him, was conversant in several languages, read voraciously, enjoyed baking and gardening, and loved to travel. “He was really interested in the humanities and believed in a classic education,” Theresa says. “He believed that people who are ill are, first of all, individuals—and a physician who is a well-rounded person will have a better understanding of the whole patient.”

You could say that Curt Nordgaard, a second-year medical student at the University of Minnesota Medical School, is well-rounded. The Princeton, Minnesota, native has worked as a janitor and a mechanic, studies Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, loves making and listening to music, cares deeply about social justice, and yearns to serve abroad. He also has a focused awareness of what really matters that the scholarship’s namesake would no doubt appreciate.

Sully was beloved by students for his counsel and friendship, Theresa says. “He was a teacher in every regard—totally available to the students,” day and night. Moreover, she says, he felt strongly that the Medical School should not only be in the business of training skilled researchers but also wise and caring clinicians.

Honoring a legacy of compassion

Nordgaard’s path to medicine has been purposeful, if not direct. Long before he chose his profession, his ultimate goal—to help others in need—was clear. After completing master’s degrees in psychology and biology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, then spending a year and a half working in an ophthalmology lab back at the University of Minnesota, he had an “epiphany.” Home in bed, sick with the flu, “I had this realization that I really could go in any direction I wanted. I asked myself, what is it I want to do in my life?”

What he wanted most, Nordgaard realized, was to serve those less fortunate and to fight social inequity.

“My values have always been in place,” Nordgaard says, “but my actions have been catching up over time.” He’s fond of a quote by the 19th-century pathologist and public health champion Rudolf Virchow: “The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and social problems fall to a large extent within their jurisdiction.”

One of the first in his family to attend college, Nordgaard initially enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1996. But financial pressures forced him to drop out after one semester.

“In order to pay the rent, I had to work too much,” he says. “My parents encouraged me, but they couldn’t give a lot of specific advice.” He spent a few months working as a janitor and a mechanic before enrolling at St. Cloud State University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in psychology.

‘“Perhaps because of my background,” Nordgaard says, “it never occurred to me that I had the opportunity to enter professions like medicine, law, and public health when I was an undergraduate. There was no one who said to me, ‘You could become a physician.’”

Serving at home and abroad

Known to many as 'Sully,' longtime educator W. Albert Sullivan, M.D., believed that future physicians should be not only intelligent but also well-rounded individuals.

Nordgaard is attracted to primary care and is particularly interested in internal medicine, although he looks forward to exploring other specialties during his rotations.

“I picture myself at one of the local public hospitals,” Nordgaard says. But he also wants to devote some time each year to international work. Last summer, he and several friends started a nonprofit, the Just Health Network, to raise funds for a number of overseas projects, including one that provides food for young HIV patients in Zambia, an orphanage in Peru, and a community wellness endeavor in Tanzania.

Nordgaard also has been closely involved with the Students’ International Health Committee as president.

This year, SIHC funded two educational events on campus about neglected tropical diseases. “[We] got several bands together to play at Memory Lanes, and the bands donated their proceeds to the cause,” he says.

Music is another abiding passion. Nordgaard played the bass drum and the string bass in high school and was a member of a “non-music-major orchestra” for one year in college. “Music was always this second thread running through my life,” he says. “By the time I came back to Minnesota, I was making home recordings.”

Nordgaard never takes his opportunities, or the Sullivan scholarship that’s helping realize them, for granted. The cost of higher education in general, and especially medical school, is prohibitive for students of modest means, he says. “The more expensive medical school becomes, the more it propagates inequity.

“I feel like Dr. Sullivan’s dedication to students now continues in the form of the scholarship,” Nordgaard says. “It’s great to be a student here and feel that support.”

By Susan Maas

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