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Paul W. Burleson, M.D.,  and wife Martha Paul W. Burleson, M.D., and wife Martha

It’s no secret that medical school comes with a hefty price tag.

For recipients of the Paul W. Burleson, M.D. Medical Scholarship—one of the most financially generous scholarships the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine offers to its students—they are able to focus more on their studies and less on how to afford the experience.

Having tuition, fees and other educational expenses paid for, not surprisingly, positively impacts their experience in medical school, and the positive ripple effect goes far beyond just their four years at the UAB Heersink School of Medicine, recipients say. Because they won’t have to someday face paying off hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, the Burleson scholarship gives them freedom to choose the specialty in medicine they are most passionate about—and not necessarily the one that is the most lucrative. Enthusiasm for primary care takes the driver’s seat, and not the hope of a potential paycheck to eradicate exorbitant debt.

Such is the case for scholarship recipient Eddie Higginbotham, a first-year medical student.

“There’s the assumption that, going into medical school, massive debt comes along with it,” he said. “I don’t think anybody plans to come out of medical school without debt. I got the call back in April that I’d be receiving the scholarship, and when I heard it, I was in shock and in awe. It was a huge burden and relief lifted off of my shoulders. It definitely freed up my ability to consider all paths of medicine. For a lot of medical students, income post-medical school is a really big thing. If you come out with $400,000 in loans—even if you come out making $200,000 as a primary care physician—that’s still a huge burden in loans you have to pay off, even though technically you’re making such a high income.”

Higginbotham said he wants to become a primary care physician and can do so now without reservation. Had he not received the Burleson scholarship, a higher-paying specialty might have won out.

“It freed up that path,” Higginbotham said. “The door is wide open [to become a primary care physician] and not have to go an alternate route.”

The scholarships are awarded to medical students with both high academic standing and financial need, with a preference given to those students who, like Higginbotham, are residents of Alabama and are interested in practicing primary care in the state upon completion of their training. Higginbotham, a native of Corner, Alabama—named so because the town of 2,000 people sits at the corner of Jefferson, Walker and Blount counties—plans to do just that.

“I hope to be able to give back to the community that gave so much to me—I cannot express enough gratitude,” he said.

The scholarships are named for Paul W. Burleson, M.D., who served the Heersink School of Medicine as an internist for 35 years, retiring in 1986. From his own experience, Burleson was keenly aware of the heavy financial burden medical school debt creates for students. Because of this, he and wife Martha established the Paul W. and Martha R. Burleson Scholarship Endowment and the Paul W. Burleson Foundation, which provides not just medical student scholarships but also internal medicine faculty support. The foundation—established by Burleson’s estate after his death in 2005—is supporting 10 students this academic year alone. Ten students are typically awarded the scholarship annually, and students that qualify may be awarded the scholarship each successive year of medical school.

“Through the Burleson Foundation, we try to honor Dr. Burleson’s wishes to help pay for medical school for deserving students who have both outstanding scholastic achievement and financial need,” said Linda Draughn, Martha Burleson’s daughter and the director and trustee of the Burleson Foundation. “We have been so fortunate to have been able to support so many incredible students over the years.”

One such student is Juan Gordillo, a first-year medical student, the child of immigrants and both a first-generation college student and first-generation medical student.

“Ever since I was growing up, medical school was a big dream,” he said. “My parents tried to instill in me that I could achieve anything I want—you know how your parents do. [This scholarship] really helped facilitate that and made a dream a possibility. It allows me to study and be able to focus on school without thinking about juggling a job on the side. I can’t imagine how difficult that would be, to stay afloat. It guarantees a peace of mind that is invaluable to me.”

Other Burleson scholarship recipients echo that sentiment.

Fellow first-year medical student Kelliann Donovan said the Burleson scholarship has had a positive impact on her life in so many different ways—most especially the opportunity to focus on becoming the best doctor she can be. Third-year medical student Michael Pettit said he was nervous coming into medical school because his family wasn’t able to help support him financially; the Burleson scholarship allowed his nerves about finances to calm and made him feel reassured that medical school was the right path for him to be on. Being awarded the Burleson scholarship cemented second-year medical student Amiria Blakely’s desire to become a primary care physician, as well as her desire to stay in Alabama to show others from the state that anything is possible.

“A lot of people say primary care is not the best option due to long hours of work and lower compensation,” she said. “Having this scholarship makes it so much easier for me, and takes away the thought of ‘How am I going to do what I love and also provide for myself?’ Now I worry less about the money. I can focus more on how to be a good student and future physician to make a bigger impact in the lives of my future patients. Initially, I thought maybe I’d go somewhere [outside of Alabama] for residency. But knowing that there is such a large community here who wants to see students succeed and make a difference in Alabama’s healthcare system has changed my perspective to stay here and be a part of this environment. Having the direct support from the Burleson scholarship and knowing that they want to see me succeed has made a huge difference in my mindset and what I want to do moving forward.”


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