Published March 15, 2022

By Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Three sisters created medical and nursing school scholarships to honor their parents’ twin passions of education and caring.

Gloria Nobleza Wise, Catherine Zeller, and Deanna Nobleza see reminders of their parents all around the Rutgers University–New Brunswick campus. The sisters remember the tidy brick house on Duke Street where their mom and dad raised them. They can picture their father, Simon, shooting hoops in Buccleuch Park between shifts as a surgeon in training. They recall their mother, Diana, studying for her nursing exams at Alexander Library and remember how important education was for the young Filipino immigrant couple.

Now the Nobleza sisters are sharing this passion of their late parents with the greater Rutgers community by establishing $50,000 in scholarships to educate a new generation of health care professionals.

“Our parents could have done anything with their good fortune and wealth,” says Wise, a content operations analyst for the legal research firm LexisNexis. “They ended up investing in educating the three of us and setting up educational funds for my nieces and nephews. We thought an educational scholarship in their name for the medical school and the nursing school would be an appropriate way to memorialize them.”

In their blood

Wise, the Noblezas’ eldest daughter, was only six months old in 1965 when the family came to live in the United States. The family settled in New Brunswick amid a physician shortage and felt inspired to help the community. Simon Nobleza, already a licensed obstetrician and gynecologist, pursued a second residency in general surgery at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick. He later joined a private surgical group affiliated with Somerset Medical Center.

Over the next decade, Diana Nobleza earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Saint Peter’s Nursing School (now Saint Peter’s University School of Nursing). Like her husband, she also practiced at Somerset Medical Center and, in the 1990s, helped stave off a nurse shortage there by recruiting nurses from the Philippines. In 2006, after Diana retired, she helped found the Pinelands School of Practical Nursing in Toms River Township, New Jersey, and taught there for more than a decade.

Still, for Simon and Diana Nobleza, who died in 2020 and 2021, respectively, perhaps their greatest achievements were their children. The couple sent all three daughters to college. The two who attended Rutgers—Deanna and Catherine—later followed in their parents’ footsteps, becoming a physician and a nurse. “It was in [our] blood,” Zeller NUR’89 says.

Good medicine

Like her father, Deanna Nobleza CC’95, RWJMS’99 pursued dual medical specialties, hers in internal medicine and psychiatry. Now assistant provost of student affairs and clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, she established the Diana and Simon L. Nobleza, MD, Endowed Scholarship to provide financial assistance to students enrolled in Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The fund is open to full-time students “who demonstrate their commitment to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion and…increasing opportunities for all underrepresented minorities at [RWJ] and in the study and practice of medicine.”

According to his daughters, Simon Nobleza experienced racism during his long career as a general surgeon. Once, when he misunderstood the idiom “charley horse,” Nobleza’s patient requested a “proper white doctor.” Simon also faced blowback from colleagues who thought his barong, a Filipino dress shirt, wasn’t formal enough for the office. Deanna Nobleza says she hopes her scholarship will help marginalized students. “Allowing opportunities for others who are underrepresented is important,” she says, “especially when you understand how important diversity and inclusion are.”

A helping heart

In support of the Rutgers nursing community, Wise and Zeller, now a North American clinical trials safety operations manager for the biopharmaceutical company Sanofi, established the Diana and Simon L. Nobleza, MD, Endowed Nursing Scholarship. The fund will provide financial assistance to full-time third- or fourth-year undergraduate or graduate students at Rutgers School of Nursing.

Zeller spent the first 14 years of her nursing career at Somerset Medical Center, where she counted both parents as colleagues. For a time, Zeller’s mother was her supervisor. “If [they] were short-handed, she called me and said, ‘You have to come in,’” Zeller says. “So I got my whites on and I went to work.” Zeller says her mother was adored by the nurses she managed. “She was very much focused on their well-being,” Zeller says. “I always heard, ‘Your mom’s the best because she always worried about us.’”

Once Zeller became head nurse on the surgical floor, she took care of her father’s patients. A promotion to nurse case manager put her in the awkward position of telling her father he had to discharge patients because insurance would no longer cover their hospital stay. “Dad really spent time with his patients,” Zeller says. “He would have the waiting room full of patients, and they would be annoyed that they were waiting. But once they spent time in the office with him, they were so happy.”

Zeller says she and her sisters hope their scholarships will help aspiring health care professionals to focus on school without worry, just like their parents’ support did for them. “If we can do that for other people,” Zeller says, “they can enjoy the success that we’ve all achieved.”

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