When he reflects on his life up to this point, how he went from being what he describes as an average student in high school to now, at the age of 23, pursuing his dream of becoming a physician, Joe Willner credits his faith, his parents’ unwavering support and former Western Michigan University President John M. Dunn.
After all, says Willner, a first-year student at WMed and native of Tinley Park, Illinois, it was Dr. Dunn who quickly laid the groundwork for a new medical school in Kalamazoo after taking the helm at WMU in 2007. The inaugural MD class arrived in 2014, the same year Willner enrolled for his freshman year at WMU with hopes of completing his undergraduate studies and then applying to WMed.
“Had he not,” Willner says today of Dr. Dunn’s decision to pursue of a new medical school, “I most likely would not have gone to Western. I have no idea if I would be in medical school today. Everything worked out as perfectly as it could have.”
The impact of Dr. Dunn’s decision and his legacy as a leader and advocate for students, is still being felt by Willner today as he learned recently that he was named as a recipient of the John M. Dunn Endowed Scholarship, an award that, since 2018, has benefited more than a dozen WMU alumni at WMed.
“I am sure throughout his tenure and career, Dr. Dunn has had students who would say, ‘thank you’ for the things he has done,” Willner said. “But, for me that statement doesn’t do it justice. I genuinely do not think I would have gone to Western had it not been for this medical school and the fact that he was so active in its development.
“It’s those events that I never imagined happening that had an impact not only on my academic career, but they landed me here,” Willner added. “So, what I hope is that Dr. Dunn is able to look at his career, his time, his tenure at Western and realize that just stating that he made a difference in some students’ or all students’ lives, that doesn’t exemplify the actual meaning. I was given everything possible to succeed.”
The Dunn scholarship helps offset medical school expenses for WMU graduates pursuing their MD degree at WMed. The scholarship fund was established in 2017 to honor Dr. Dunn for his significant contributions to WMed and was announced at the 2nd Annual Imagine Gala. The scholarship fund was made possible through the charitable support of the medical school’s healthcare partners – Ascension Borgess and Bronson Healthcare – as well as members of the WMU Board of Trustees, the WMed Board of Directors and community members.
“I’m proud of that, it’s one of those singular moments that turned out far better than you anticipated,” said Ken Miller, a member emeritus of the WMU Board of Trustees, a WMU alumnus, and CEO of the Millennium Restaurant Group, who played a key role in fundraising efforts for the Dunn scholarship. “I wanted to honor John. To think that something that I played a part in, however small, is having a profound impact on the lives of students at WMed is very fulfilling. Ideally, I’d love to dream that one day every student coming out of Western who wants to come to WMed can have a full ride. It is a living scholarship fund and I certainly wouldn’t put limits on what the Dunn scholarship can do now that we’ve seen in just two and a half years the success it is already having.”
When the scholarship fund was announced in 2017, Dr. Dunn sat in a chair next to his wife, Linda, at the Imagine Gala, overcome with emotion and saying more than once, “Wow.”
Recently, when he heard about the tangible impact the scholarship fund is having now on the lives of WMU alumni at the medical school, his response was the same.
“Wow,” Dr. Dunn said. “The fruits of all of this will be in the thousands of patients that will be served by these students and I think that’s the really important message. The seed has been planted and it’s planted in very bright young people who have a commitment, desire and passion to serve others. That is a gift that keeps on giving.”
For Willner and other WMU alumni who are now at WMed, the Dunn scholarship serves as more than just a financial gift. For them, even more, it is a reminder of the impact Dr. Dunn had at WMU, of how their time at the university and the support they received as students there aptly prepared them for the rigors of medical school.
Before she left home to attend WMU, Natalie Finazzo said she often struggled in high school as one of the youngest students in her class. When she told her counselors she wanted to pursue her lifelong dream of being a doctor after high school, they told her to have “realistic goals,” she recalls now.
Finazzo, who is now a second-year student at WMed, said everything changed for her when she arrived in Kalamazoo as an undergraduate student. She worked with academic advisors at WMU who helped her map out her classes and set her up for medical school. She said she also had awesome roommates and formed a strong core group of friends.
When she graduated from WMU in 2018, she did so summa cum laude. Later that year, she was welcomed to WMed as a member of the MD Class of 2022.
“Coming here, I found my niche and I really thrived. My advisors and professors at WMU were some of the most patient and some of the best people I’ve ever met,” said Finazzo, 25, who is a native of the Detroit area. “Western really played a big part in me reaching my potential. I don’t know if I would have been able to do that without coming here and being a part of this community.”
Finazzo said the Dunn scholarship is a reminder for her of the support she received during her time at WMU and how that support has continued now that she is at WMed. For all of it, she said she could not be more grateful.
“I can’t believe how much I’ve grown and gotten out of being here and being a part of Western,” Finazzo said. “I was definitely blessed coming here and I think beyond being so grateful I'd want to make it clear that my success as a student and ability to reach my full potential has everything to do with the community and culture that Dr. Dunn created and fostered and really promoted at WMU.”
Clay Carter, a M1 at WMed who graduated from WMU in 2018, said he had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Dunn during his time as an undergraduate student and prior to Dr. Dunn’s retirement in 2017. Dr. Dunn’s friendliness and kindness always stuck with Carter.
“You could just tell he wanted the best for all of us,” said Carter, a native of West Bloomfield, Michigan, who was a Medallion scholar during his time at WMU. “(The Dunn scholarship) is so in line with the character of the school and John Dunn himself and it makes perfect sense that he would want to do something like that. It really holds special meaning.”
Like Finazzo, Katie Davis, a fourth-year student at WMed, said the culture of collaboration and generosity at both WMU and WMed are a credit to Dr. Dunn and the work he did during his time as university president.
“I think Dr. Dunn is a big reason why many of us are such proud Broncos,” Davis said. “I hope he is really proud of us and what we’ve been able to do at WMed and that we’ve made him proud as Western alumni continuing our education here. Our culture here is very unique and it’s just such a supportive environment where students come first.”
Keenan Boulnemour, a Kalamazoo native and second-year student at WMed, said his decision in 2014 to transfer to WMU and come back home to Kalamazoo after attending another institution turned out to be “the most important decision of my life to that point.”
The move back to his hometown, Boulnemour said, opened the door to “a whole other world” that was so supportive. That experience, he said, has continued at WMed and being named as a recipient of the Dunn scholarship left him speechless.
“I think of Dr. Dunn as the ultimate leader in Kalamazoo as far as pioneering things like the medical school,” Boulnemour said. “To have his name on an award given to me, it’s an extreme honor.”
M3 Jake Morton said he is appreciative that after attending WMU he was able to pursue his MD degree at WMed and continue to be a part of the Kalamazoo community. A native of Milford, Michigan, Morton said of Kalamazoo, “You can definitely feel the love here.”
“We have great resources here at WMed, we have great faculty and they really care about our education and they’re invested in us,” Morton said. “It’s hard to even express the amount of gratitude that you have when someone gives you a gift like the Dunn scholarship. I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to become the best clinician that I can be, and I hope one day I can do for others what they have been able to do for us.”
Dan Waters, a third-year student at WMed who graduated from WMU in 2016, said the Dunn scholarship is an honor and it reminds him that he and other students didn’t just come to Kalamazoo to be a part of WMU or WMed, but to also be a part of the community.
"This doesn’t happen on its own." Waters said. "It happens because each day, many people work together to make it happen. I am deeply grateful for the commitments and contributions to develop this community."
For M3 Marine Bolliet, the Dunn scholarship is a continuation of the support she received from a very young age growing up in Kalamazoo, including through The Kalamazoo Promise.
“I grew up here and I’ve continued to choose to stay in Kalamazoo because of the strong support not just from family and friends, but also the community,” Bolliet said. “This scholarship reinforces that the Kalamazoo community is really supportive and invested in our success. It’s also named after someone who is empathetic, understanding, someone who listens to and advocates for his students. All those qualities are things we strive to be as we become physicians and even now as students.
“It’s very reinforcing and motivating,” Bolliet added.
Willner said there isn’t one thing he would change about his time at WMU or the path he took to WMed. He arrived at the medical school in July 2018 as part of a cohort of students in the medical school’s Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences program. The degree program is designed specifically for applicants to the medical school who have strong pre-medical experience and attributes and would benefit from additional basic science preparation before beginning their quest to become a doctor.
A distinct benefit of the program is the linkage to the medical school’s MD program, as students who successfully complete the master’s curriculum are conditionally accepted to the MD program for the following academic year. Each student also receives a full-tuition scholarship from the medical school to cover the cost of the master’s program.
“The experience has been a blessing,” Willner said.
Now, as first-year student in the medical school’s MD program, Willner said he is excited for the pursuit of his dream of becoming a physician.
“It was important to me, even in high school, that I felt like I’ve been blessed to a point that a lot of individuals are not and I do think it is part of my duty to give back for that, to give back to the community and to give back to my family,” Willner said.