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Medical students helping to fight COVID get a holiday gift


Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., June 18, 2019. For 956 students at one of the largest historically Black medical colleges, an unexpected gift of gratitude arrived in their bank accounts just in time for Thanksgiving.

By Adeel Hassan


For 956 students at one of the largest historically Black medical colleges, an unexpected gift of gratitude arrived in their bank accounts just in time for Thanksgiving.


The students, from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, have been pivotal in helping their city keep coronavirus testing sites staffed for the last 19 months — and, more recently, in helping run vaccination clinics.


That work inspired Dr. James Hildreth, Meharry’s president, to send each student $10,000 Wednesday.


“I’m thankful for you students and the future of health care, public health and research that is entrusted to you,” he said in a video message to them. “That future looks bright.”


The money comes from the $40 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds earmarked for colleges and universities. Schools are required to spend at least half on emergency grants to students.


Some historically Black colleges and universities have used the funds to ease student debt. Hildreth did not tell Meharry students how to spend the cash infusion, although he did offer advice.


“We felt that there was no better way to begin distributing these funds than by giving to our students who will soon give so much to our world,” he said in the video. He added, “The $10,000 is yours to manage, but I would be remiss if I didn’t strongly advise you this Thanksgiving to be good stewards of what you’ve been given. I know Black Friday shopping is tempting, but you’d be well advised to use the funds to pay expenses related to your education and training.”


The pandemic has been a difficult time for Meharry students, requiring virtual classes, shortened clinical rotations and delayed licensing exams, said Dwight Johnson II, a fourth-year student from Brownsville, Tennessee, who is his class chaplain.


“Many of us had family members and friends that passed away,” Johnson said. “Also, prior to the release of vaccinations, going into hospitals each day knowing that you may be exposed to COVID and have to be taken out of your rotations for quarantine was an extremely stressful experience.”


The announcement came as Johnson, 27, was selling his couch for $50, so he said he was “overjoyed when I got the news.”


“I plan on using the money to alleviate some of my debt, study resources for my upcoming licensing exam and for my honeymoon, as I’ll be getting married in May,” he said. “My fiancee is also a fourth-year medical student at Meharry, so this gift completely changed how we’ll be able to begin our lives together.”


Johnson is applying for a gynecological residency position, and he plans to work in an underserved community to help reduce disparities in maternal mortality. The work, he said, is in the spirit of his great-grandfather, who started funeral and insurance businesses to address the denial of basic services to Black citizens during the Jim Crow era.


“I’ve also spoken to some other classmates, and we are interested in organizing some way to give back to the various workers at Meharry in time for Christmas,” he said. “We understand the importance of paying it forward and are grateful to be in a position to help others.”

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