As they pursue their dream of becoming a doctor, Kevin Cates, Allan Medwick and Grace Walter are each at a different point in the journey.
Each has their own story about what brought them to Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. They have unique backgrounds that laid the foundation for them to pursue a career in medicine.
But despite those contrasts, the trio is bound by a desire to serve.
They each are recipients of a scholarship from the National Health Service Corps, an award that will guide their path after medical school into primary care where they will treat and care for the underserved and be a lifeline in communities with the most need.
“I like primary care in that you have a direct connection with your patients over time,” Medwick said. “You get to develop relationships with patients and their families over a lifetime and that’s really appealing … The idea of service just makes sense.”
Scholarships from the NHSC program cover tuition and education-related expenses for medical school, and recipients receive a monthly living stipend. After medical school and residency, students commit to serving at a NHSC-approved site in a high-need urban, rural, or frontier community for a period of time that is equal to each year of financial support up to four years.
Jean Shelton, director of Admissions and Student Life at WMed, said the scholarships from the NHSC serve an important role for medical students by cutting down any barriers to pursuing a career as a primary care physician.
“I think what makes NHSC so great is that it is for the student who knows that (primary care) is what they want to do,” Shelton said. “They’re seeking it because they want to do primary care and how great is it to find a full-tuition scholarship that is for what you were going to do any way.”
At 37, Medwick is the oldest student in WMed’s Class of 2020. He came to Kalamazoo in August as a new medical student after working for several years for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Medwick was raised in Carteret, New Jersey, and prior to his work at the NIH, he completed his undergraduate studies at LaSalle University where he earned a degree in economics and Italian. Later, he earned two master’s degrees, as well as a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania. His work experience includes a three-year stint as a research assistant and adjunct professor at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.
He also, during his undergraduate studies, was an intern for Aon Corporation in New York City and worked on the 101st floor of 2 World Trade Center in the summer of 2001. Medwick said his internship concluded three weeks before Sept. 11 and eight people he knew from his time with Aon were killed in the terrorist attack.
As he talks about that now, Medwick said the events of Sept. 11 caused him to reflect on his purpose in life. He says he thinks it had an impact on bringing him where he is now.
“It makes you aware of how precious time is,” he said. “The time we have on this earth is limited … You may not make a huge impact in the world but you can make a big impact on individuals so it makes sense to focus on really doing things for others.”
Cates, 31, who grew up in western Kentucky and southern Illinois, applied for the NHSC scholarship prior to choosing where he would go to medical school. He said he knew, prior to beginning his studies at WMed as a member of the inaugural Class of 2018, that he wanted to be a primary care physician.
That desire, he said, stemmed from work he did in Chicago while pursuing a master’s degree in Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During that time, Cates worked at the Howard Brown Health Center, a federally qualified health center that provides care to the underserved, including low-income residents and the LGBTQ community on Chicago’s north side.
Cates said he also got the opportunity to work at other community health centers during his time in Chicago, including a facility on Chicago’s southwest side that served the Latino community.
“I found that I loved those communities dearly and I wanted to be able to do more for those communities, which is what really prompted me to think about medical school in the first place,” Cates said. “… In every case, I like being that place that’s having this incredible impact and giving access to healthcare.”
Cates said he plans to complete his residency in an underserved community as a way to continue to “feed my passion” while preparing for the work he’ll do to fulfill his commitment to NHSC.
Walter’s story is similar to Cates in that she wanted to go into primary care before she started medical school. In the year between graduating from Kalamazoo College and coming to WMed, the Kalamazoo native said she did job shadowing at a local pediatrics practice and an obstetrics and gynecology practice and decided that she wanted to be a primary care physician.
However, Walter said once she made the decision that a career in medicine was for her, she worried about paying for her education and going into debt to fund her studies.
Then, she said, a family friend told her about the NHSC program. Walter said the program initially sounded “too good to be true” when she found out it would allow her to pursue her passion of becoming a primary care physician while also relieving the concerns she had about paying for medical school.
“This is the perfect opportunity,” she said. “I want to serve the underserved, I want to go into primary care.”
Walter, 24, who is in her second year at WMed, said that once she’s done with medical school, she plans to complete her primary care residency in an underserved community. As a doctor, she said she looks forward to being an advocate for her patients.
“That was really important for me because, with the insurance issues in this country, it’s really hard for people to get good healthcare and that’s one reason why helping the underserved appealed to me,” Walter said. “it’s important to help those who are the most vulnerable … You don’t have to go very far to find people who are in need of good healthcare.”
Medwick said a desire to help underserved patient populations was at the heart of his decision to pursue a scholarship from the NHSC. He said the scholarship helps remove “the financial question” of attending medical school.
“You know you’re not going to end up with all of the debt and you can be free to practice the type of medicine you want to practice as long as it’s related to primary care,” he said.
Shelton said having a NHSC scholar in each of the medical school’s first three classes “says something about the students we are attracting.”
“For me, it shows passion, it shows dedication and it says we’re attracting leaders,” Shelton said. “We’re attracting students who, even on the front end of medical school, have made this decision and made this commitment and are going into medicine for the right reasons.”