Each year during reunion weekend — amid the class gatherings, campus tours, endowed lectures, and reunion dinners — several smaller groups of dedicated George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) alumni meet with a larger purpose beyond just reconnecting and remembering the times. These groups, Class Ambassadors, are an all-volunteer force that is crucial not only to supporting their respective MD program reunions, but also to building opportunities for the SMHS community.
The Class Ambassador program represents an important element of the school’s overall giving strategy. Participating alumni represent their classmates as they identify class gifts and set fundraising targets. They encourage reunion weekend attendance among their classmates, while also serving as a conduit between the alumni cohorts and the Office of Development and Alumni Relations.
“The Class Ambassadors program plays a vital role in our efforts to build school’s educational, research, and clinical care mission,” says Jackie Wood, associate vice president for health and medicine. “Alumni support has direct impact on current and future generations, enabling students to make the most of their GW experience, inside and outside of the classroom.”
The GW SMHS MD Class of ’71, led by Class Ambassadors Robert Allen, John Clark, Howard Gross, Kenneth Moritsugu, and Jerald Reisman, is a prime example of the rapid impact an alumni cohort can have. Heading into its 50th reunion in 2021, the class used the occasion to establish an endowment to support a need-based scholarship in perpetuity. Under the guidance of the team of ambassadors, the GW Medicine Class of 1971 Endowed Scholarship Fund went from a vague idea to a vested fund valued in excess of $200,000 in less than six months. The endowment has been so successful in such a short time that this year it issued its inaugural scholarship, supporting third-year MD student Serena Dow.
After some discussion about the virtues of setting an easily attainable goal, the classmates decided to establish an endowment to support scholarships and set a $200,000 fundraising target. To get the campaign up and running, they agreed that, as ambassadors, they ought to set the example and have personal “skin in the game.” Each pledged $5,000, giving the class a $25,000 head start. In less than four months the class was able to grow that seed money to more than $200,000.
“I said, ‘You know, we’re at our 50th anniversary as physicians, we’re a half a century in, thanks to the start we got from our MDs from GW. Let’s shoot for the moon,” recalls Moritsugu, MD ’71, MPH, a retired rear admiral in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps who served as acting United States Surgeon General under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “We have a unique opportunity, particularly with those of us who are 75, 76, 77 years of age, who are in a retirement mode and drawing down on our 401Ks, to give back to the school that launched us. Now that we made our initial goal, we really want to target $500,000, and even more!”
Each class has the freedom to direct the focus of their gift, and while many classes focus on the area of greatest need — scholarships — not every class makes that choice. The MD Class of 1985 decided to support physician wellness efforts through the creation of its Wellness Fund. The idea took shape during the Class of ’85’s 30th reunion, when classmates suggested that physician health and wellness is necessary to both delivering the highest quality of care and sustaining a successful career. The endowment supports wellness and resiliency programming for both practicing and budding physicians.
“There is a real need to be proactive in integrating strategies to promote clinician wellness into our medical education, training programs and in our careers — that is the only way to prevent burnout and restore the joy and the sense of meaning in medicine, the very reason we all entered this amazing profession,” said Lawrence “Bopper” Deyton, MD ’85, MSPH, senior associate dean for clinical public health and Murdock Head Professor of Medicine and Health Policy, and a Class of ’85 ambassador. “We all have an interest in helping current and future physicians develop the self-care tools to stay healthy, happy, and productive, for the good of the individual and the patient and our communities.”
For the Class of ’71, however, the decision to target scholarships was simple. Contrasting their own medical school years — and a $2,500 tuition 50 years ago that felt daunting at the time — Moritsugu says everyone agreed a scholarship that could support students in perpetuity was the ideal choice and an endowment was the way to get there.
“There are students out there who have the intellectual capacity to succeed in medical school, they just they don’t have the financial capacity to do so,” he says. “You make a contribution and it’s done, but by creating an endowment, the Class of ’71 will live on, literally, forever. We will use the endowment as the principal on which we will be able to generate more and more scholarships. From our gifts, we have created a legacy!”
An endowment, Moritsugu adds, makes giving more attainable as well. He encourages younger classes to begin to plan early because “those milestone anniversaries come faster than you realize.” To make it a bit easier to attain, he suggests establishing an endowment fund early, while alumni are still developing their careers.
“Not everyone is looking back over their prolific careers,” he says. “If you’re two or three years out of a residency you might not have the disposable income. Your legacy can begin at even $10 a month when you’re just out of a residency program — the cost of a cup of coffee a week, you can start small, increasing your amount as you succeed, and still end up where you want to be. It establishes a practice and a pattern of giving — giving back, and paying it forward to help create the next generation of physicians!”