Kris Engelstad McGarry and The Engelstad Family Foundation

By Paul Joncich

To her, the [$100,000] scholarships represent an open door that allows high achievers from economically disadvanted families to walk through…

Fifty-seven UNLV School of Medicine students gathered recently inside one of the school’s classrooms, patiently waiting to meet the woman who is paying their way through four years of medical school.

Without a doubt, many, if not all, were thinking, “How do I find the words to thank her?”

Kris Engelstad McGarry and the Engelstad Family Foundation funded each of their $100,000 scholarships because she believes in the school’s mission to increase the number of doctors and improve healthcare in Southern Nevada. This would be the first time she would meet the students in person.

Walking into the room and seeing them sitting there, Engelstad said, “(It) made me feel hopeful and encouraged. Too often I get caught up in politics and governance, and while that matters, meeting these young people face-to-face was a reminder that it is really all about the students.”

For the students, many of whom would not be able to afford medical school if it were not for the scholarships, this was an opportunity to express their deep gratitude to the person who is helping change the trajectory of their lives.

Enes Djesevic, one of six students chosen to speak at the event, was sitting in the front of the room about 10 feet from Engelstad McGarry, when he abruptly stopped his presentation and said, “…You know, I would really just like to give you a hug!”
The room erupted into applause as the noted philanthropist embraced Djesevic, who would later make it clear that she is “not normally a hugger.”

First generation college students do not normally go to medical school either. But dozens of them are enrolled in the UNLV School of Medicine, thanks to generous donors like Kris Engelstad McGarry. To her, the scholarships represent an open door that allows high achievers from economically disadvantaged families to walk through, allowing the students to compete on a more level playing field; eventually becoming doctors, and, as Engelstad McGarry says, “Changing their family trees.”

Kris Engelstad McGarry and
The Engelstad Family Foundation

The scholarships are awarded by need because Engelstad McGarry and Senior Associate Dean for Admissions Sam Parrish have a special appreciation for students with a “fire in their bellies.” “Everybody in medical school is smart,” Engelstad McGarry said. “It takes a special kind of person to succeed despite being told ‘no’ your entire life.”

Students Robert Vargas and Kathie Velez told Engelstad McGarry that medical school would have been “completely out of the question” if it were not for the scholarships. Velez, who has worked year-round since she was 16 to help support her family, became emotional explaining what the scholarship means to her. This time, Engelstad McGarry was the one who initiated a hug.

Second-year student Lauren Hollifield presented Engelstad McGarry with a collage featuring photos of the students. Later, Engelstad McGarry would realize that the Hollifield sisters, (Lauren, class of 2021 and Carmen, class of 2022), went to high school with her son. The mixer succeeded in making fundamental connections between Engelstad scholarship recipients and the woman herself.

“Robert Vargas was adorable during his presentation,” Engelstad McGarry said. “He was an Engelstad Scholar as an undergrad at UNLV and now he’s an Engelstad Scholar at the medical school. He’s first generation. He’s a good example of what we’re trying to do, which is to help good kids do great things.”

Kris Engelstad McGarry and
The Engelstad Family Foundation

The scholarships not only help attract the best and the brightest, they also protect students from feeling the crushing weight of student loans. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the median medical school debt is $180,000 and after interest, total repayment can reach upwards of $400,000. Heavy debt often causes students to select higher paying specialties, which contributes to the lack of primary care physicians.

At the UNLV School of Medicine, students spend their first six weeks speaking to residents and learning about medical needs in some of the more distressed neighborhoods of Las Vegas. “They’re doing community service because they have to,” Engelstad McGarry said. “But the hope is they will continue their work in these neighborhoods because knowing the challenges people face will help them become better doctors.” The UNLV School of Medicine is one of the only medical schools in the country where community service is required all four years.

Engelstad McGarry joked that she hoped the students would remember her as she gets older and may need medical attention. That brought another rise out of the eternally grateful first- and second-year students, who seemed quite eager to put in the work … so they can get busy returning the favor.