Friendship built on philanthropic foundationJeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., met prominent Nashvillian and Vanderbilt Board of Trust emeritus member Ridley Wills II for the first time in 1998, shortly after returning to Vanderbilt University Medical Center from residency and fellowship training and a faculty position at Johns Hopkins.
But the generosity that connected them for life occurred a full decade earlier.
Balser, now vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, was two years shy of completing the M.D./Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine when he was awarded the Meade Haven M.D./Ph.D. Scholarship.
It’s funded by the family of longtime Vanderbilt supporter Wills, retired senior vice president of the National Life & Accident Insurance Co. and third-generation member of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust, and his wife, Irene, after the death of Ridley Wills’ father, Jesse E. Wills, in 1977.
The scholarship allowed Balser to complete the M.D./Ph.D. program, which typically takes seven to eight years. The length and cost of an M.D./Ph.D. program makes full scholarship support essential. While VUSM is the recipient of a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health that supports a portion of the cost for about 25 percent of Vanderbilt’s current 94 M.D./Ph.D. students, the remainder of the support comes from a combination of endowment, scholarships, the Dean’s office and the individual departments.
In 1988 Balser was told only that a prominent Nashville family was supporting his scholarship. “I wrote a thank you note. I understood, and was so grateful, that their support was making it possible for me to finish my program.”
After Balser became dean of the School of Medicine in 2008, he asked for information about the Meade Haven Scholarship and learned it was named after the Wills’ Belle Meade home. The couple, whose son, Morgan, is a 1996 graduate of VUSM, also fund the Wills Scholarship to provide assistance to worthy medical students based on financial need.
“I was stunned, because I had met Mr. Wills on several occasions. The very same evening I knew I would see Mr. and Mrs. Wills at a dinner, so I approached them and said, ‘Do you know who had the Meade Haven Scholarship? I did.’ They didn’t know either. It was one of those special moments.”
Balser said the two have gotten to know each other very well since that time.
“We love to talk about how things come full circle, how some things you’ve done long ago have a big impact down the road. I think it’s very fair to say that without the Meade Haven Scholarship my life would have been very different. I very likely would have landed somewhere else for M.D./Ph.D. training.”
Wills said that he and his wife are proud of all Balser has accomplished. “We’ve been impressed with his leadership. He’s energetic and bright and the School of Medicine is a great source of pride for everyone who loves Vanderbilt.”
The majority of students entering medical schools across the country are confronted with unmanageable costs that require them to take on substantial debt, forcing students to make choices that limit them when pursuing their desired career paths in medicine. Vanderbilt now competes head-to-head with the nation’s most elite medical schools for the world’s finest students.
Some inclined to attend Vanderbilt are nevertheless forced to choose other schools with more robust scholarship endowments, particularly when faced with incurring large debt obligations.
Student scholarships and endowed chairs are Balser’s two top funding priorities at the School of Medicine. The recently launched Scholarship Initiative has a straightforward purpose: to grow the scholarship endowment so that every student accepted — an elite group of about 250 from among the 5,600 who apply each year — can choose Vanderbilt without concern for burdensome debt.
The Class of 2012 graduated with an average total educational debt level of $140,500. Some medical student couples have debt loads exceeding $300,000.
Irene Mathieu, a member of the Class of 2014, said that Vanderbilt became her No. 1 choice for medical school after she found out she was receiving a full four-year Canby Robinson Society Scholarship.
“I have been able to focus on my passions of primary care and health in underserved communities around the world — passions that are decidedly not lucrative. But thanks to the Canby Robinson (scholarship) I do not have to consider finances when weighing career options and have been able to fully explore these areas in medical school,” she said.
“I want to help shape foreign and trade policies by advocating for the health rights of communities impacted by these policies. Agricultural and free trade agreements are particularly fascinating to me because of their effects on poverty, migration and disease risk. Thanks to my scholarship, these dreams will not be limited by debt,” said Mathieu, who is considering a career in internal medicine and pediatrics and a master’s degree in public health.
Michael Casner, president of the VUSM Class of 2013, received the Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship, which funds 40 percent of his tuition. Casner, who plans to pursue emergency medicine, said that not only did the scholarship make a Vanderbilt medical education affordable, it also showed him that Vanderbilt wanted him. “That intangible aspect meant more to me than the numerical value of the offer,” he said.
He said being able to leave medical school without enormous debt has allowed him to focus on things he values without the worry of how he will repay his debt.
“For residency training I’d like to be in an urban environment, which typically means a higher cost of living. While I still have some student loans to repay, knowing they aren’t as large as they could be makes the financial aspect of living in a big city a little less daunting.”
Balser said having a fully funded M.D./Ph.D. scholarship to Vanderbilt allowed him to invest the time to learn the fundamentals of discovery science early in his career.
“I wasn’t burdened with substantial debt after my medical training, so I was able to spend more time engaging in postdoctoral research training while raising a family. The scholarship made everything possible. It’s a key reason I’m so passionate about trying to raise more money for student scholarships.
“When I think about philanthropy, I think about the Wills family,” Balser said. “For me, philanthropy isn’t just an idea, it’s a personal experience, and when I think about the impact the Wills family has had on my own life and career, it helps me articulate how important scholarship support is at Vanderbilt.”
For more information visit vanderbilthealth.org/MDscholarship.