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Getting Pre-Health Right: One Family’s Response

February 15, 2016

Stronger Truer Sewanee will enhance Sewanee's ability to attract, retain, and support a nimble faculty and develop 21st-century programs that help students address today's unscripted challenges. Gifts in the campaign have already enhanced our offerings in business and pre-health, place-based studies and civic engagement, and lead donors have challenged others to extend the successes their gifts have enabled. This story shows one example of how Sewanee's academic distinction is being fostered by gifts made in the campaign.


Dr. Merrill Stewart with students"We wanted to help Sewanee get this right, because the Pre-Health program should provide a first rate experience for our students,” says Cornelia Barrett LaRussa, C’85. “We are passionate about Sewanee and when the University approached us for financial support, we had several ideas about how we could best help based on what we had heard from Sewanee graduates, students who had rotated through our office, and on our own experiences thirty years ago, as well as those of our students (Barrett LaRussa, C’14, and Olivia LaRussa, C’16) and their classmates.”

This passion for getting it right convinced Cornelia and her husband, Dr. Joe B. LaRussa, C’84, an allergy /immunology specialist and a member of the Pre-Health Advisory Board, that they had something to contribute. Thanks to their thoughtful philanthropy, Sewanee will begin offering human anatomy and physiology, histology and nutrition. “These courses are particularly important for students who are applying to medical, dental, optometry, veterinary, and pharmacy schools, and are requirements for allied health professions like nursing, and physical and occupational therapy,” says Dr. LaRussa. “We had heard about students who were taking these courses elsewhere, often at great expense in addition to what they were already paying for a Sewanee education. These courses taken in the summer were also preventing our students from gaining valuable work experience in the healthcare environment. We were wondering why these courses were not already a part of the Pre-Health curriculum.” 

But that was not all. “We also wanted Sewanee to do a better job of doing what it is known for,” says Cornelia, “developing great mentoring relationships.” That kind of calculation is what Dr. LaRussa describes as being a “student-centered pre-health program” – with attention to student needs and the kind of mentoring that will help them focus on long term objectives while succeeding in a challenging academic environment. “Sometimes the really great students are thinking about what is right in front of them,” notes Cornelia, “but we want to make sure they are developing a vision for their futures and that their faculty and mentors are helping kindle a student’s passion for his or her particular interest.”

The LaRussa gift is one family’s response to a $2 million Hippocrates Challenge. The challenge was issued by an anonymous donor who promised $500,000 if the University would raise $1.5 million from other sources. Another area of need the LaRussas have identified is getting help with managing the program. “Dr. Alyssa Summers, as Director, is doing a great job developing the program,” Dr. LaRussa says, “but it is certainly too much for one person to do. Her advising load is nearing 200 students. We are excited that Sewanee is recruiting a professor who can assist with the program and take on some advising duties; we know that more mentors and advisors working with our students is critical if we are to build and maintain a first-rate program.”

“Think of it this way,” says Joe. “Sewanee has the Babson Center for pre-business students and great writing programs made possible partly by the Tennessee Williams funding. We would like Sewanee to have the resources to take pre-health to the same level. We owe it to our students. Think of it as investing in someone who will ultimately have a fulfilling future in a healthcare field and who will positively affect so many patients from day to day, week to week, and year to year. It is difficult to put a value on that!”

Sewanee has now raised about a third of the $1.5 million needed to meet the Hippocrates Challenge, a fundraising effort the LaRussas believe could also be a great opportunity for alumni to make gifts in memory of classmates or loved ones who have passed away. “Ultimately, pre-health programs produce healers, and helping more Sewanee graduates become healers is a great thing,” says Dr. LaRussa. New resources from the Challenge will support core programming that serves pre-health students:

  1. Proactive advising. Accessibility and approachability must be the hallmarks of the advising program. Students need to have ample one-on-one time to help shape their academic careers and postgraduate aspirations.
  2. Test prep courses. Funding will bring test prep courses for MCAT, DAT, GRE and other high stakes tests to the Mountain. It is crucial for our students to do well on these tests in order to make their applications competitive.
  3. Great internships. A strong application to any post-graduate health program requires experience in research as well as clinical settings. Sewanee needs funds to sustain undergraduate research and budding collaborations with leading medical, dental, ophthalmology, pharmacy, veterinary, PT/OT, and nursing schools for internship programs.
  4. The Hippocrates Fellows. An innovation in 2015, the Hippocrates Fellows Program provides early research, mentoring, leadership experience and training for a cohort of excellent students.

Impact of the challenge

Gifts to the Challenge will be endowed funds restricted to the Pre-Health Program. Individuals can either contribute directly to the Hippocrates Endowment or may establish another named endowment for a minimum gift of $120,000 for a pre-health internship.

For more information contact:

Scott Smith
Office of University Advancement

If you are interested in a gift that goes beyond current-use dollars, named endowed internship funds begin at the $100,000 level. Named endowed scholarship funds begin at the $150,000 level for the College and $75,000 for the School of Theology.