FAU College of Medicine benefactor Ann Wood and previous Wood scholarship recipients attend a May event announcing a $28 million gift from Ann and her husband, John, the largest scholarship gift in FAU history. One current recipient is Ivan Grela, fourth from left, a second-year medical student. Photo provided
Couple pledges $28 million for FAU scholarships
By Mary Hladky
Ivan Grela’s career goal is to become a physician, but he faced a major hurdle. By his calculations, four years of medical school would cost him $245,000.
“That is way too much,” he said. “My family could not help me with tuition or rent.”
That left him with one unpalatable option: take out loans that would saddle him with debt for years to come.
“I was disheartened,” said Grela, a University of Florida graduate who was born in Argentina and moved with his family to Miami when he was 9 years old. “I really didn’t want to do this. It did make me think twice.”
Even so, he applied to medical schools and was accepted by both the University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University.
UCF offered a $6,000 scholarship. FAU, his preferred choice, offered him one established by Boca Raton philanthropists John and Ann Wood that covered his entire first-year tuition and provided $10,000 for each of the next three years.
That decided the matter: Grela would be attending FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, where he is now in his second year.
He and the other students who received the scholarships are “extremely thankful,” Grela said. “We are so much more relieved that at least we got some sort of aid.”
Even so, Grela estimates he will graduate with $180,000 in loan debt.
His problem is widely shared. Seventy-three percent of medical school graduates had debt, with the median amount at $200,000 in 2019, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
John and Ann Wood are well aware of this dilemma. That is why they stepped forward again in May with a $28 million estate pledge to support scholarships for medical college students — the largest scholarship gift in FAU’s history.
This gift allows the college to launch an initiative to move toward providing a debt-free medical education, following in the footsteps of a handful of prestigious medical colleges. They include Cornell University, Columbia University, University of California, Los Angeles, and New York University.
“That was our goal,” John Wood said. “We are fully aware of the debt load.”
Wood, who moved with his wife to Boca Raton in 1983, knows that FAU’s annual medical college in-state tuition and fees is $35,000.
“There is no way an ordinary kid coming from a middle-class home can afford that,” he said.
The couple, who owned a prestressed concrete business that built bridges, piers and cruise ship terminals throughout the Caribbean that they sold in 2005, hopes that news of their gift will inspire other philanthropists so that all of FAU’s medical college students can graduate debt-free.
“We are hoping that will be a catalyst to get more people in the community to do the same thing,” Wood said.
The couple has helped students for years. After the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that claimed 17 lives, they began providing 10 four-year scholarships each year to graduates.
Their first gift to FAU’s medical college in 2021 originally supported 10 medical students through four years of medical school, and was expanded earlier this year to support an additional 20 students each year.
Two of their charitable efforts are named in the memory of their sons, Bruce and Robert.
While the amount of the Woods’ latest gift is extremely generous, it will help about 10% to 15% of FAU’s medical students, said Dr. Julie Pilitsis, dean and vice president for medical affairs.
She shares the Woods’ goal that the donation inspires others to join the cause.
“We hope the community rallies behind this to realize the vision of doctors without debt,” she said.
This isn’t just about helping students afford medical education. It is vital to providing adequate medical care to South Florida residents, Pilitsis said. Florida is expected to be short nearly 18,000 physicians by 2035, according to the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida and the Florida Hospital Association.
“It is really important … we provide the health care workforce we need today and tomorrow,” she said. “In order to do that, we need to attract doctors from the community who want to stay in the community and serve their neighbors.”
With debt-free tuition, “I think we can attract the best and brightest and retain our local talent,” Pilitsis said. “Taking this burden off is one way to compete.”
Joining other trailblazing universities “would really elevate our institution,” she said.
Reducing the cost of medical education also will help FAU attract a diverse group of medical students who are more likely to meet the needs of underserved populations. And it relieves pressure on students to become highly paid specialists rather than badly needed but lower paid primary care physicians.
Grela hasn’t decided yet what type of medicine he will practice. But he said he probably would choose primary care or emergency medicine if he didn’t have to worry about money.
Since he does, “this makes me reconsider which field I want to go into. I am concerned with the loans piling up, interest rates, how long it will take me to pay this off,” he said.
As it aims for debt-free medical education, FAU’s medical college, launched in 2010, already is able to point to successes in diversifying its student body and aligning graduates with the most-needed practice areas.
The 64 members of the class of 2022 are 46% female and 54% male; 20% are underrepresented minorities in medicine. Twenty will specialize in primary care, including family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics.
About 30% of FAU’s 2022 medical college graduates will conduct their residencies in Florida, and 50% of those residency graduates will stay in the state, Pilitsis said.