Scholarship Created in Honor of Sons in Medicine and Duluth Campus Alumni

Jackie Blomker, Mrs. Gudrun Witrak, Dr. Geoffrey Witrak, Paige Hartman and Bobbi Livengood

It is not often that a scholarship story begins with the beneficiary receiving medical care. Donors are often inspired by experiencing the medical field as experts themselves or when they recall the financial burden they had faced as dedicated students. However, to create a scholarship because residents who were Duluth campus alumni cared for you during your most challenging times? 

Back in 2015, Mrs. Ruth Witrak did exactly that and made sure that future students were secure through financial support. Her final decade was marked with multiple ER visits and hospitalizations. She passed away in 2020 at the amazing age of 100.  Her son, Dr. Geoffrey Witrak, graduated from the U of M Medical School. He was also an instructor in the pathology department during the majority of his career. He practiced medicine at both St. Lukes and Essentia. He recalls his mother fondly and the scholarship she was inspired to begin. 

“She, of course, glowed with maternal pride over having two physicians as sons. But it was her gratitude for excellent Minnesota medical care which was foundational for the eventual endowment," he said. 

During her medical admissions in the final ten years of her life, Mrs. Witrak experienced incredible compassion. 

“When those young Duluth campus doctors would inquire whether she was related to their former medical instructors, my brother and I, the bursting of her buttons, her familial pride – it had a decidedly joyous and therapeutic effect combined with having raised two doctors herself. She knew the burden these young physicians had gone through,” Dr. Witrak said. “I believe this was the genesis for the scholarship fund.”

The criteria to receive financial support includes that the professional student is enrolled in the Medical School, studying at the Duluth campus and demonstrates high academic achievement further defined as ranking in the top 10% of their class. Preference is given to those interested in practicing rural medicine. Since 2015, this scholarship has awarded over $50,000 with current recipients acknowledging the value of monetary support.

Hannah Schull, a class of 2023 and MD candidate future graduate, commented, “Over the past two years, the medical community has had to come together in ways we never thought we had to, to make it through the challenges and sadness of a global pandemic. Being awarded the Witrak scholarship during a time where misinformation and mistrust of medical professionals was so prevalent helped me continue to move forward in my training. It was a reminder that I was supported by the greater community of physicians. Receiving a scholarship goes beyond just alleviating the debt of medical school, but promotes unity and support for future physicians.” 

Ashley Fankhauser, who is also a class of 2023 and MD candidate future alumna, responded, “Receiving this scholarship was important to financially support me throughout my time in Duluth, especially throughout COVID-19. The pandemic took up half of my first year and all of my second year of medical school while I was in Duluth, and it was a financially difficult time for many people. I felt lucky to know that I had support while I was putting all of my effort into finishing my second year of medical school mostly from home. I also studied for the USMLE Step 1 at the end of my second year, which took up all of my time. Again, being able to provide healthy food options for myself with the financial support I had received helped me prepare well for my test. I feel very blessed to have received financial help throughout my time on the Duluth campus. I felt this support helped me to prepare well for my clinical years through the Twin Cities.” 

While Mrs. Witrak created a scholarship fund to lessen the debt load for a number of students during the past six years, and for many years to come, she also did something magnificent that is less tangible and less concrete. She inadvertently made it possible for medical school students to feel less alone, less vulnerable, and thereby less uncertain. These gifts know no bounds and it is very possible that the Duluth campus alumni who treated her during her final years had given her a similar gift that went well beyond the material world.

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