There’s enough pressure on medical students learning the ins and outs of life-and-death decisions. Fortunately, money doesn’t have to add to the stress for students at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV.
Every member of the charter class was awarded a scholarship that covered the entirety of their tuition — $25,000 per year for four years — thus allowing them to step into their residencies with significantly less debt than the national average.
Without a doubt, scholarships are life-changing. But there’s another side to the story: the donors who made the scholarships happen. For decades, many of those donors have been working to transform health care in Southern Nevada, and seeing the first medical students graduate is a major milestone. It is the culmination of a dream that seemed at times like it wouldn’t come true.
“The School of Medicine will be the best thing the university has ever done for itself — but more importantly, the best thing the university will have ever done for the community,” said Don Snyder, who, along with his wife, Dee, was among the first to fund a scholarship. Championing the school was a cornerstone of Snyder’s term as acting UNLV president (2014-15) and the focus of much of his volunteerism and leadership.
Scholarship donor Gary Ackerman and his wife, Debbie, have a son who was diagnosed with autism 27 years ago. At the time, there were no physicians trained in developmental pediatrics, a highly specialized field of medicine, to help them in Las Vegas.
Ackerman described the family’s medical journey as “long and lonely.” It’s what led the Ackermans to fund one of the first medical school scholarships. Since then, they’ve forged a bond with their scholarship recipient, Faun Botor, a mother of three.
“I almost start crying when I think about this,” Ackerman said. “She is going to become a (children’s) developmental physician — one of the unicorn doctors.”
The medical school began to solicit donors for its first scholarship campaign in 2015. The university sought to raise at least $6 million in scholarship support to offer full tuition to applicants as an incentive to attend a medical school that was still in its accreditation stage.
Las Vegas’ philanthropic community stepped up and surpassed that goal. The university raised $13.5 million for 135 scholarships in that first campaign.
All of the students in the charter class were covered, as well as a number of students for years to come.
Notably, the Engelstad Foundation provided for 100 four-year scholarships, 25 each for the first four classes.
The stories behind why donors funded the first scholarships are touching. The bonds forged between the donors and students are indelible. Joe and Julie Murphy established their scholarship in the name of 9-year-old Emily, the daughter of family friends, who passed away from brain cancer.
This spring, the Murphys are hosting the wedding reception of their scholarship recipient, Monica Arebalos, in their backyard.
“She’s family now,” said Julie Murphy. The two recently went shopping for outfits for Arebalos’ honeymoon and a professional wardrobe so that she is prepared to start her residency at Christus Health in Texas. She plans to become an emergency medicine physician.
“We just hit it off really well from the get-go. I have met several of the students and they are unique. I can’t even explain it. We just connected. It was meant to be.”