Finding the silver lining: Class of 1991 endows scholarship to help struggling veterinary students

The bonds created between classmates at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) can build great things. For the Class of 1991, those bonds have created a brand-new endowed scholarship, spearheaded by Gary Block, D.V.M. ’91, which has now reached a total of $125K.

The Class of 1991 has been a tight-knit group since their days together in Cornell lecture halls and labs, and they frequently gather to celebrate for CVM Reunion. “I feel personally that I meshed better with folks in my veterinary class than I did with my undergraduate class. It was a great four-year exprience,” Block says. Part of his affinity for his veterinary school years may be in part because he met his wife — Justine Johnson, D.V.M. ’91 — during that time. He notes that while she found him obnoxious at first, she came around. Today, Block and Johnson co-own two referral and emergency hospitals in the Northeast.

Something of significance

Block, Johnson and their classmates benefitted from graduating during the “heyday” of veterinary medicine, Block says, and most of them have had abundant career opportunities and successful lives. While the class had done a relatively good job of staying in touch, an unexpected tragedy pulled them together even closer than ever. Earlier this year, their classmate, Karen Fischer, D.V.M. ’91, took her own life. “Everyone was shocked and surprised,” said Block. “We all knew this is an increasing problem in our profession, but, like most things, it’s hard for you to get your head around until it hits home.”

The loss spurred Block to want to do something of significance. “I’ve never liked people just sharing thoughts and prayers,” Block said. “I felt like I wanted to make more of a difference — and thought it would be nice to start a scholarship to honor Karen.”

Block set about contacting his classmates — emailing, texting and calling to get their buy-in for the fund. “I reached out to them and I nagged them and cajoled them and mocked them,” Block says. “It was a healthy outlet I think for many of us to help temper our grief; we were getting to interact as a class again, and it helped us come to grips with the loss. It was a small silver lining around a true tragedy.”

They weighed whether to endow the scholarship, which would require raising at least $100K to support a permanent yearly gift to students from the fund’s investment dividends. Eventually, they decided this was the route they wanted to take, and in roughly 10 months, over half the class contributed to the fund, hitting the endowment amount — and beyond — at $125K and increasing.

A way to connect

Peggy McCann ‘85, D.V.M. ’91, now associate vice president of regulatory affairs at Merck, heard about the scholarship from Block’s email and subsequent follow-ups. “He definitely drove the process — he followed through and figured out what we needed to do to get to our goal amount,” she says, adding that she appreciated the collaboration that came from creating the scholarship. “With COVID ongoing, [in-person] Reunion isn’t going to happen this year, so this was a nice way to connect — even if it was just via email.”

Block and his classmates agreed that the only stipulation for receiving the scholarship should be financial need. “Anything we can do to take the stress out of a veterinary student affording school, food, room and board — make their lives a little easier, that’s going to make us all feel a little bit better on our deathbed,” Block says.

"I am extremely pleased and grateful for the tremendous efforts to permanently endow the Veterinary Class of 1991 Scholarship at Cornell,” says Lorin D. Warnick, D.V.M., Ph.D.’94, Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “Their generosity will have a huge benefit for our veterinary students far into the future.”

This was a motivating element for McCann, who notes that she was able to get through veterinary school without incurring significant debt and is now at a place in her career where she can help make a difference for others; the Merck Foundation also matched the amount she gave to the fund. “I see kids coming out of school today with so much debt, and it feels like a great thing to do to make a difference for them,” she says. “I also hope that our example might inspire other alumni to do the same.”

Old classmates, new bonds

Aside from Block’s similarly noble motivations of starting the scholarship, he admits to a more small, self-serving motive. “In vet school I masked a lot of insecurity with a lot of obnoxious cocky confidence,” he says. “I think a part of me regrets that personality and that vibe that I brought to vet school didn’t allow me to get to know all of my classmates, who in retrospect I would have liked to get to know better. This scholarship has given me an excuse to reach out and get to know them now.”

Thanks to bonds, old and new, among Block and his classmates, a student will be awarded the scholarship in Fall 2021. “I am incredibly grateful that so many people stepped up to donate,” says Block. “This couldn’t have been done without a lot of people feeling the same way I do — that a Cornell veterinary education has had huge impacts on our lives. I hope the creation of this scholarship can give Karen’s family and friends a small bit of solace while also bringing attention to the “Not One More Vet (NOMV) initiative that provides support for veterinary students and veterinarians who are struggling or considering suicide."

Written by Lauren Cahoon Roberts