By Christina Hernandez Sherwood
When Jessica Mitri’s father, Australian digital dentistry technology entrepreneur Georges Sara, died in a New York City hospital in November 2020, she was buoyed by support from an unlikely place—the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine.
Sara, 56, had become ill with COVID-19 soon after arriving in the United States that summer. He was there to complete a three-year project—the creation of a state-of-the-art digital dentistry center at Rutgers. Sara and his Australian company Stoneglass Industries had donated $1.3 million in equipment and software, along with countless hours of education and training for Rutgers faculty and students. But when the center finally opened in September 2020, Sara was in the hospital, fighting for his life.
“When [my father] did pass, my personal Instagram page blew up with students contacting me from Rutgers,” Mitri remembers. “I was getting emails saying, ‘Jessica, we found out about Georges. We can’t believe it.” The students recalled how Sara showed them photos of his grandchildren and told them what Mitri was up to back in Australia before he started teaching. “It was just so heartwarming,” says Mitri, now head of operations at Stoneglass.
Despite his tragic passing two years ago, Sara’s legacy is alive at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, where the now-named Georges E. Sara Digital Dentistry Center honors his innovation and generosity. The gift of the center was one of the largest in-kind donations in the history of the school, and it stands as a shining example of Rutgers’ position at the forefront of dental medicine. But it wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else, Mitri says, or without a series of serendipitous connections between like-minded dental experts.
“The relationships that my father built with the staff at Rutgers, and the belief that they had in him and what a prosthetic design center could do for the students and the patients,” Mitri says, “that was the difference.”
A family affair
It all started with spaghetti and meatballs.
Back in 2017, Rutgers periodontics professor Howard Drew and his wife, Ina, invited Georges Sara for dinner at their home at the suggestion of their son, Alex. While Alex Drew was chief resident of the Columbia University dental school’s prosthodontics department, he used Sara’s Stoneglass digital dentistry tools. Alex Drew thought his father—and Rutgers—should also get to know the entrepreneur.
Over Italian food and wine, Howard Drew instantly connected with Sara, whom he described as “a larger-than-life character,” with long curly hair and an effervescent personality. But Drew was equally impressed with Stoneglass technology, a host of thoughtfully designed tools meant to complement, rather than replace, traditional dentistry techniques.
Drew learned that Stoneglass technology positioned traditional dental techniques as the foundation of its process to produce partial and complete arch removable and fixed prostheses. This analog and digital synergy—including scanners, 3D printers, and a software suite—was especially appealing in the university setting. That’s because try-in prostheses could be designed and fabricated in-house to create a fully individualized prosthesis. (While typical dental prostheses come in standard sizes, with only certain colors available for teeth, Stoneglass equipment can produce more aesthetically pleasing implants because of its customization capabilities.)
Sara had created a system for clinicians that provided prosthetic support and guidance from engineers, technicians, and clinical specialists to ensure that even the most complex cases found solutions. “This was mind boggling, miles ahead of your average dental laboratory,” Drew said.
Drew introduced Georges Sara to Heba Elkassaby, now director of digital dentistry at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine.
The future of dentistry
Elkassaby quickly understood the educational potential of Stoneglass technology. Using the Stoneglass system to design and fabricate dentures digitally would enhance students’ ability to analyze tooth arrangement and occlusion, she realized, and it would also give Rutgers’ dentists-in-training access to the latest tools in dental technology, such as 3D printers.
“3D printing technology has been proving itself in dentistry recently in many applications… and there are ongoing advances in this technology,” Elkassaby says. “The future of dentistry is moving toward using digital technology in every aspect.”
Rutgers School of Dental Medicine Dean Cecile A. Feldman also recognized the possibilities of the Stoneglass partnership. “Like in all aspects of life, technology is greatly benefitting our field, and this collaboration has brought us to the forefront of digital dentistry,” said Feldman. “The center enables our students and faculty to get hands-on experience using the latest tools and techniques, which they then can employ in patient care.”
Elkassaby worked closely with Sara—the two bonding over their similar backgrounds and sometimes joking in Arabic—on the details of the partnership. Part of Sara’s gift was to install Stoneglass software on dental students’ tablets. This meant students could learn Stoneglass technology in the simulation lab and practice with it at home before entering the dental clinic.
The Sara Digital Dentistry Center has 23 workstations, three 3D printers, and three laboratory scanners. Stoneglass prosthetic technology became part of the school’s curriculum when the center opened in 2020. Students can use the technology to design complete dentures digitally. Postdoctoral students can also design implant-supported fixed prostheses.
“Because of this center, we now have the technology to teach and fabricate digital complete dentures,” Elkassaby says. “Most dental schools have some technology for fixed restorations, but only a few schools nationwide [including Rutgers] have the digital technology for removable prostheses.”
Rutgers dental graduates will long reap the benefits of their digital dentistry skills, whether their future career involves using Stoneglass technology, Elkassaby says. Once students have mastered computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) with Stoneglass technology, they will have skills needed to learn other such programs.
In the meantime, Rutgers students who gather in the Georges E. Sara Digital Dentistry Center pay homage to the man who lent it his name by designing and manufacturing prostheses with Stoneglass technology. “One of the patients was dancing in the clinic last week after she got her dentures,” Elkassaby says with a smile. “She showed her dentures to everyone in the clinic, and she was dancing because the outcome was so nice.”
While the public showered nurses with well-deserved praise as health care heroes during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the workload remained when the public’s interest waned. And now, after caring for patients through a years-long health care emergency, many nurses have found the unrelenting stress to be too much. Across New Jersey and the country, nurses are leaving the workforce in droves.
“Nurses are caretakers,” says Lois V. Greene, a nurse by training who serves as interim chief strategic integration and health equity officer at University Hospital in Newark. “But we don’t necessarily care for ourselves.”
That’s why Greene participates in the New Jersey Nursing Emotional Well-Being Institute (NJ-NEW), a collaboration of the New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing (NJCCN) at the Rutgers School of Nursing and Rutgers University Behavioral Health to support the emotional needs of nurses throughout the state. NJ-NEW provides free, research-based programming to bolster nurses at both individual and organizational levels.
“A resource like NJ-NEW gives us a moment to breathe and remember that life can be difficult,” says Susan W. Salmond, NJ-NEW’s director and executive vice dean of the Rutgers School of Nursing. “We want to operate at our best, so it’s important that we do some self care.”
Initially funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NJ-NEW recently received additional support from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. The grant is the latest in a more than two-decade partnership between Rutgers University and the Millburn-based Foundation, which makes grants to reduce disparities in health care delivery and improve access to quality care for vulnerable populations in the Newark area and the Jewish community of Greater MetroWest.
To date, the foundation has awarded Rutgers and its partners more than 150 grants, including a $3.2 million gift in 2003 to establish The Healthcare Foundation Center for Humanism and Medicine at New Jersey Medical School, which promotes empathy and compassion for doctors-in-training. The grant funded an endowment for the center’s operation and annual student scholarships. Examples of more recent grant initiatives include those tackling opioid use, children’s mental health, and healthcare advocacy within the greater Newark area, to name a few.
According to executive director Michael Schmidt, the foundation has also long recognized the need to support New Jersey’s health care workers. The COVID-19 pandemic brought that need, for nurses particularly, into sharper focus.
With the NJ-NEW program, Schmidt says, Rutgers was equipped to support the nursing workforce. “We saw NJ-NEW as a priority new initiative we wanted to be at the forefront of supporting,” he says. “This grant is an opportunity to bolster nurses and help institutions retain nurses at a time when many are experiencing staff shortages.”
A key component of NJ-NEW is virtual Schwartz Rounds, where nurses can come together to discuss the emotional cost and personal impact of caring. Through NJ-NEW, these hour-long nurse-to-nurse discussions are facilitated by behavioral specialists and focus on specific nurse populations, such as school nurses, or key themes in nursing, including burnout, the nursing shortage, and building resilience.
Each session opens with one or two nurse panelists sharing a brief personal story related to the discussion’s theme, says Jennifer Polakowski, assistant director of NJ-NEW. Then participants break into smaller groups for more intimate and purposeful conversations.
Some 4,000 nurses have so far participated in more than 55 such sessions, which can count for a continuing-education unit. “We end with some self-care strategies like deep breathing,” Polakowski says. “It’s not always new content, but it’s reinforcing what we all need to hear sometimes, that you can take five minutes, take a pause, maybe go for a walk to help you reset yourself for the day.”
And to address their needs at the institutional level, NJ-NEW is also training nurses in Stress First Aid, a stress recovery framework that they can bring back to their workplaces. Meant to help organizations build a more resilient workforce, Stress First Aid uses a color-coded stress continuum model (green, yellow, orange, and red) to make it easier for people to communicate stress.
“Nurses want to feel valued. They want to be heard,” Polakowski says. “We hope this framework helps as a way to communicate within their organization in a way that feels safe and comfortable. It’s a big shift in nursing culture.”
Finally, NJ-NEW is building a repository for programming, services, and resources related to nurses’ emotional well-being and resilience. The goal is to bring together a host of evidence-based materials in a centralized repository that nurses can access around the clock.
“We want this program to expand and grow and meet nurses where they are.” Polakowski says.
For information about contributing to the NJ-NEW program, please get in touch with Jennifer Polakowski.
Quest Diagnostics has contributed to Ready to Run® at Rutgers, the nonpartisan campaign training program for women. The gift will help fund a range of resources that help women from all political parties prepare for and execute political campaigns.
Nadia Hussain has participated in Ready to Run® going back to her time as an undergraduate at Rutgers–New Brunswick. In 2020 she ran for and won a seat on the Bloomingdale, New Jersey, Board of Education.
“Ready to Run® helped,” she said. “Traditional structures get you connected. I didn’t have those connections; I had to make them. Knowing what to do in an election, having a fundraiser, making fundraising calls, opening a campaign account—the program is a mechanism for feeling empowered.”
A national network aiming to address the underrepresentation of women in American politics, Ready to Run® helps women envision themselves in elected roles by offering a primer for those considering public office—locally and nationally. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) founded Ready to Run® and administers Rutgers’ instance of the program.
“We’re pleased to be able to help women get the needed resources to aspire to hold elected office in this great state,” said Cecilia McKenney, Quest’s Chief Human Resources Officer. “We’re pleased to team up with Rutgers University to support this important initiative.”
Debbie Walsh, director of CAWP, praised Quest Diagnostics for its support for Ready to Run®. “This contribution from Quest Diagnostics makes a powerful statement about the need for Ready to Run®,” Walsh said. “With women comprising less than one third of officeholders at every level of office we study, there is so much left to do. We welcome support from the private sector in the important work of advancing women’s public leadership.”
Hussain agrees. “Fifty percent of the country is female,” she said, “and that’s not what you’re seeing in elected office. Even women whose families have been in the country for generations, they don’t feel they have a voice.”
The CAWP-hosted Ready to Run® is the organization’s flagship New Jersey program. Over the past 20 years, the program has trained more than 4,000 women to run for office, seek appointed positions, and manage campaigns. Ready to Run® program attendees walk away with a range of skills and resources, including “how to” instructions for running for office, fundraising and media skills, real-world advice from experts, networking opportunities, and more.
Hussain took full advantage of these resources. In her successful 2020 campaign, she applied what she learned—fundraising, networking, earning publicity—with intensity, knocking on more than 1,000 doors. Her professionalism and work ethic earned her the highest vote returns of any candidate in her town in more than a decade. “Women,” she said, “work harder in politics—on the campaign trail and wherever they’re serving.”
“We are enormously grateful to Quest Diagnostics for supporting Ready to Run®,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “Quest’s gift will help us engage more women as future public leaders, crucial in a moment when we all look towards building a better future and strengthening our democracy.”
In addition to its recent support for Ready to Run® at CAWP, Quest Diagnostics’ ongoing work with Rutgers includes support for no-cost laboratory tests to diagnose and manage acute and chronic diseases for uninsured and underinsured patients of the Rutgers’ H.O.P.E. Clinic in Plainfield, New Jersey. Like that program, Ready to Run® seeks to make an immediate impact on a long-running problem.
“The issue of women’s underrepresentation in politics has been an ongoing one,” said Walsh. “To help change that, we must ensure that women continue to have the resources and training they need to run for office and serve their communities as public officials.”
Hussain said, “When I was younger, I thought, ‘I’m a girl, and I can do anything.’ It amazes me that society doesn’t think that. It’s 2022 and it’s illogical. We know what to do, but the political will is still not there. I’m still pushing for that.”
About Quest Diagnostics
As the world’s leading provider of diagnostic information services, Quest Diagnostics empowers people to take action to improve health outcomes. Derived from the world’s largest database of clinical lab results, Quest’s diagnostic insights reveal new avenues to identify and treat disease, inspire healthy behaviors, and improve health care management.
Quest annually serves one in three adult Americans and half the physicians and hospitals in the United States. The company’s nearly 50,000 employees understand that, in the right hands and with the right context, our diagnostic insights can inspire actions that transform lives.
About the Center for American Women and Politics
CAWP is nationally recognized as the leading source of scholarly research and current data about women’s political participation in the United States. Its mission is to promote greater knowledge and understanding about the role of women in American politics, enhance women’s influence in public life, and expand the diversity of women in politics and government.
CAWP’s education and outreach programs translate research findings into action, addressing women’s under-representation in political leadership with effective, intersectional, and imaginative programs serving a variety of audiences. As the world has watched Americans considering female candidates for the nation’s highest offices, CAWP’s five decades of analyzing and interpreting women’s participation in American politics have provided a foundation and context for the discussion.
About the Eagleton Institute of Politics
The Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling is a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. The Eagleton Institute studies how American politics and government work and change, analyzes how democracy might improve, and promotes political participation and civic engagement. The Institute explores state and national politics through research, education, and public service, linking the study of politics with its day-to-day practice. To learn more about Eagleton programs and expertise, visit eagleton.rutgers.edu.
When Gigio K. Ninan and Kanwar S. Kelley studied at Rutgers Law School in Camden slightly more than a decade ago, the two hungry students frequented the Palace of Asia restaurant in Cherry Hill. It was there that they discussed their medical malpractice litigation class while feasting on tikka masala, palak paneer, and warm garlic naan at the $12 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
Ninan CLAW’11, a New York attorney who often represents medical practices and pharmacies, and Kelley CLAW’10, a California physician and entrepreneur, didn’t know at the time that these trips to their favorite buffet would be the genesis of a friendship that would span the years. That connection served as the impetus for the Kanwar S. Kelley and Gigio K. Ninan Endowed Graduate Scholarship, awarded to Camden students at Rutgers Law School interested in pursuing a career in health care. “There was some synergy in doing a health care-related scholarship because of the type of companies I represent and the health care tech and medical space that Kanwar works in,” Ninan says.
John T. Vaughan III NLAW’02 also had an impactful experience at Rutgers Law School in Newark. A native of Wyckoff, New Jersey, Vaughan now lives in Los Angeles. Still, he hasn’t forgotten his Garden State roots or the law school that helped him launch a successful career as a corporate legal officer whose work spans technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and the medical device industry. Vaughan and his spouse, Jeffrey Darna, an anesthesiologist and research scientist, established the Vaughan-Darna Health Sciences Scholarship, an endowed scholarship for Newark students at Rutgers Law School who intend to pursue a career in health law. “I did that because Rutgers gave me a great education that led me to a successful career,” Vaughan says. “I want to make sure others have that chance.”
The two endowed scholarships intended for graduates entering the health sciences and health care fields are unique in being established by younger alumni. Alumni often establish endowed scholarships at or near the end of their careers. At 39 and 36, respectively, Kelley and Ninan are among the youngest alums ever to establish an endowed scholarship at Rutgers University–Camden.
Scholarships that Kelley, Ninan, and Vaughan received as law students are a motivating factor in their gifts to the law school. Vaughan received the Austin Scott Scholarship, established in memory of a former head of the Rutgers College Department of Economics. “This is paying that back with interest,” Vaughan says.
Kelley and Ninan both received scholarships offered to Rutgers Law in Camden students. “It meant a lot to me because without that money, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to connect over buffet with Kanwar,” Ninan says.
A commitment to New Jersey
Vaughan was inspired to establish a scholarship while attending a Rutgers Law reunion. That’s where he bumped into former classmates Kerry Flynn NLAW’03, RBSG’03 and Chris Andrew NLAW ’02, and learned they had established a restricted scholarship in 2015. “That opportunity to reminisce with folks and take stock of how Rutgers has contributed to my success was inspirational,” Vaughan says.
Vaughan sees his scholarship not only as an opportunity to help students financially but also as a way to invest in New Jersey, which is widely known as “the medicine chest of the world” because of its pharmaceutical and health sciences industries. “I’m proud of being born and raised in New Jersey, and I’m proud of my Rutgers education,” he says. “I want to make sure that New Jersey continues to be a life sciences leader and the one way I can do that is to provide this scholarship for health law in the state.”
Friends committed to Rutgers Law
Kelley has established a successful Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also cofounder of Shingle Technologies, which helps physicians start, manage, and grow their private practices, and Side Health, which provides fully integrated, comprehensive care for people with chronic medical conditions. Kelley says he’s proud to make time to support Rutgers Law and encourages fellow alums to do the same. “It’s super important to get involved early and, quite honestly, there’s never a good time to give financially,” Kelley says. “There’s always going to be something competing for your financial interests—whether it’s buying a house, buying a new car, putting your kids through school—but it’s super important at the same time to give back, even if it’s a small dollar amount.”
Ninan, cofounder and partner of Shankar Ninan & Co., a boutique law firm based in New York, also volunteers his time, serving as chancellor of the Rutgers Law School–Camden Alumni Association. Recently he was appointed to the Rutgers Law School Dean Search Committee. Ninan realizes that not all young alumni can afford to endow a scholarship, but he encourages them to volunteer and participate. “Time and alumni engagement are extremely valuable, and volunteering is a surefire way that younger alumni can pay it forward to our future leaders.”
At Newark’s Weequahic High School more than 70 years ago, Sandy Jaffe preferred comic books to homework and graduated near the bottom of his class. But Jaffe, the son of Eastern European immigrants, thrived at Rutgers University–Newark, attending night school and working days, and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. “I was what they call a ‘late learner,’’’ he says. Jaffe recently teamed up with alumna Linda Stamato to invest in a program that values student potential and life experience over GPAs: the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC), their latest gesture of commitment to Rutgers–Newark.
Jaffe NCAS’54 and Stamato DC’62, GSNB’77 have funded the creation of a research fellowship that could help replicate the HLLC program nationally. It’s based on an intergenerational group of students working together at the new HLLC learning and residential facility at Rutgers-Newark. Although many have been academically successful, others weren’t in a position to realize their potential as students earlier in life. A key admissions factor at HLLC is a commitment to social justice and community building. The program acclimates them to college life and hones their skills to become top scholars. More than half are from the city, and many are children of immigrants and the first in their families to attend college.
“Honors students should be chosen based on grit and promise, not solely on academic standing or test scores,’’ says Stamato. Born in Newark, to which she frequently returned while being raised in Essex County, she earlier demonstrated her dedication to the university during her 12 years serving on the Rutgers Board of Governors. In 1985, the year after completing three years serving as its chair, she gave the commencement address at Rutgers–Newark, a moving experience for her. A year later, Stamato, along with Jaffe, cofounded the Rutgers Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers–Newark, which has since moved to the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, where the two are policy fellows. Her position is one of many prominent ones that she has held since arriving at Rutgers in 1971, among them trustee, dean, and chair of search committees for presidents and deans.
To again assist a Rutgers cause—this time with a gift to HLLC—was a natural for Stamato. As for Jaffe, Rutgers opened the doors to everything for him: “At Rutgers–Newark back then, all that was required was to fill out an application and show up,” he says. “Having the chance to go to school at night nearby enabled me to begin the process of learning how to learn.’’
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Magazine.
When Daniel Schneider, a fun-loving neurologist and psychiatrist, walked into M. Maral Mouradian’s office at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to interview for an early-career professorship, Mouradian recognized him immediately. And it wasn’t just because of his signature long hair tied back in a low ponytail.
A few years earlier, in the middle of a flight home from Buenos Aires, Mouradian and Schneider, who were strangers at the time, both leapt into action when a fellow passenger began to have seizures. Though the plane was filled with physicians returning from the 14th International Congress of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders, Schneider stood out. “Dan was the one who stayed with the patient the longest,” Mouradian says, “taking genuine interest in providing care to a stranger.”
For that reason and many others, Schneider landed the job.
In his time at Rutgers—first as an assistant professor, then an associate professor in the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry—Schneider established himself as an outstanding educator, a trusted adviser, and a caring clinician. He won numerous teaching awards and served as director of several neurology clinics.
Even when he became ill with pancreatic cancer in 2019, Schneider continued teaching, learning, and caring for more than a year until his death in February 2021 at age 46.
Now, thanks to three gifts totaling nearly $1 million from his estate, executed by his mother, Penny Moreno, Schneider’s legacy will live on at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and in the students who follow in his footsteps.
“I wanted to give back in his name and to support the department that supported him so much,” Moreno says. “I don’t want him forgotten. He was too young. He had too much potential.”
From a young age, Schneider was fascinated with the human mind. After growing up in upstate New York, Schneider studied psychology in college. During his medical training at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Schneider became interested in movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. That interest spawned a unique six-year medical residency for Schneider, who spent three years in neurology and three in psychiatry. He then completed a fellowship at Columbia University before finding himself in Mouradian’s office.
Many movement disorders have overlapping neurological, cognitive, and psychiatric manifestations, says Suhayl Dhib-Jalbut, chair of the Department of Neurology at RWJMS. “[Schneider’s] broad training endowed him with the skills to have a holistic approach to patients with neurodegenerative diseases.”
At the time of Schneider’s death, he was director of Rutgers’ clinics for deep brain stimulation, behavioral neurology, and functional neurologic disorders. “His loss was as impactful to us as to his family,” Dhib-Jalbut says.
A Patient Man
When Schneider’s illness forced him to be at home or hospitalized, often in great pain, he continued to meet with patients via telehealth appointments—a practice he continued until the month before his death. “When he got in front of that screen and he was treating patients, you didn’t know that there was a pain in his body,” says Moreno. “You could tell that was what he loved to do—to treat patients.”
Viewers of the Netflix series Diagnosis caught a glimpse of Schneider’s bedside manner in a 2019 episode. As a leading expert in functional neurological disorders, Schneider met virtually with a 44-year-old patient named Ann, who had unexplained paralysis and said previous doctors had frequently disbelieved her.
“I hear the frustration,” Schneider replied, leaning into the webcam. “I don’t have a vested interest in what the diagnosis is. I have a vested interest in getting people better. That’s really what I enjoy.”
Despite a demanding career, Schneider pursued a host of other interests.
He played several musical instruments and loved to dance, especially tango and swing. In 2013, Schneider was pictured in The New York Times dancing with friend Kiyomi Kubo at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing event.
He held Latin poetry readings at his Manhattan apartment, which was packed with some 1,500 books. “He had every book imaginable,” Moreno says, “and read voraciously.”
The gifts honoring Schneider will serve three distinct purposes, Moreno says.
An endowed early-career professorship in cognitive neurology will recruit and retain early-career scholars to serve as Rutgers faculty, just as Schneider had done.
An endowed lectureship in cognitive neurology will fulfill Schneider’s dream of a lecture series in his name—one that stimulates conversations and collaborations, allowing students and faculty to connect with leaders in the field.
And an endowed scholarship for Rutgers medical students interested in neurology will carry on Schneider’s legacy as an educator—one who won the Department of Neurology’s Teacher of the Year Award several times.
“I hope by the professorship, the scholarship, the lecture series,” Moreno says, “people remember.”
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.
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.”
Theresa Ragozine knows that her parents, blue-collar workers who did not attend college, would have done everything they could to make sure she earned a college degree, no matter how difficult it might have been for them.
However, when she received a scholarship from Rutgers, it eased the “heavy lift” her parents would have faced. The financial aid “allowed me to be a student. Albeit one with a part-time job but with much less of a financial burden,” Ragozine RC’80 says. “That created a solid launching pad, and I’ve never forgotten the support.”
Having recently retired after a 36-year career as an executive at Johnson & Johnson, Ragozine wanted to make a difference in the lives of future students who, like her, could use a hand up. In the past, she has given generously to her alma mater, creating a scholarship for Rutgers Future Scholars, a college access program for underresourced, academically promising New Jersey students.
But, she says, “I wanted to make a more permanent commitment” to the university. To that end, she established a charitable remainder trust to support Scarlet Promise Grants. The grants provide financial aid for students who need to bridge the gap between what federal and state aid programs offer and what their families can afford. The grants also address short-term emergency needs.
Contributing to her decision to create the trust in support of Scarlet Promise Grants was Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway’s announcement on his first official day in office in July 2020 that he was launching a campaign to raise $10 million for the grants. (At his inauguration in November, Holloway announced he has expanded that goal, now surpassed, to $50 million, which will support an array of financial aid and access initiatives.)
“He made a very sincere and promising introduction during a difficult time,” Ragozine says. “I was struck by his message, and what I respect most about it was his clear intent to find the right focal point for his attention. He made a personal financial commitment to Scarlet Promise Grants and I thought it was a terrific leadership beginning. It got my attention.”
Providing students with the resources they need to pursue their dreams helps not only them but the rest of society, Ragozine says, because Rutgers graduates will go on to find solutions to challenges facing our state, nation, and world.
Supporting Scarlet Promise Grants “is also an investment in shaping a new generation of philanthropists,” she adds. “This generation that receives assistance can also become a generation that gives it.”
A $2 million grant from the family foundation of alumnus Ernest Mario PHARM’61 will enable students to become highly skilled practitioners in pharmacy and medicine.
The grant commitment will offer scholarships to PharmD/MD dual-degree program students completing their final two years of pharmacy education.
The funds will establish The Mario Family Foundation Endowed PharmD/MD Scholarship to help students in the unique and highly selective program, which is designed to create an elite group of interdisciplinary practitioners who are highly skilled in both pharmacy and medicine.
Launched in 2013, the dual program was the first PharmD/MD program in the United States and is considered a model for preparing expert leaders in health care policy, research, and clinical settings. To date, 45 students have participated in the program.
Graduates of the program enter the workforce trained in a collaborative practice model of patient care and equipped with expert interprofessional knowledge of both pharmacy and medicine for a broad understanding of the health care landscape.
“Rutgers continues to train the finest pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists in the world, with the ultimate goal of improving the human condition through science, research, and application,” said Dr. Mario, a member of Rutgers’ Hall of Distinguished Alumni. “The delivery of quality care to patients continues to become increasingly interdisciplinary. The PharmD/MD program ensures that physicians have peers who are trained in pharmacy to facilitate the best outcomes for all patients.”
Dr. Mario and The Mario Family Foundation have established and supported numerous programs at the pharmacy school, including The Mario Family Foundation Tuition Assistance Fund, established in 2020 to support undergraduate and graduate students who have been directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a real game changer in that it will provide support to future health care innovators who will use the strengths of both professions and become change agents in pharmacy and medicine,” said Joseph Barone, dean of the school.
Graduates of the program have gone on to residencies at nationally recognized medical institutions such as Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, UCLA Medical Center, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Yale-New Haven Hospital.
These impressive residency placements clearly demonstrate the impact the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences are having on the trajectories of future health care leaders.
Carole Sampson-Landers remembers how she and her parents struggled to afford college when she attended Rutgers. “I had to live at home and my parents worked extra—all they could afford was tuition,” says Sampson-Landers DC’69, GSNB’74. And she understands how much more expensive a college degree is today.
She learned about current students’ difficulties paying for tuition, housing, books, and fees as a member of Rutgers’ Board of Trustees, where she recently started her second term. In 2019, she and her fellow board members, alarmed at the number of students dropping out of school or taking on substantial debt because of financial struggles, pledged to boost the endowment for the Scarlet Promise Grants program by $3 million. The grants fill gaps for students whose financial aid has been depleted or who need emergency assistance.
“When I joined the board,” Sampson-Landers says, “I took seriously my responsibility to make financial donations to the board’s initiatives. I had been helped when I was at Douglass College with scholarship money and work-study opportunities, and I always said I would help other students down the road because I got help.”
When President Jonathan Holloway took office in July 2020, he announced a campaign to raise $10 million to support Scarlet Promise Grants and made a generous gift himself. That sealed the deal for Sampson-Landers and led her to make a $50,000 gift to the grants program. “I wanted to make sure I did something over and above what I’d done before. I thought, ‘I’m a graduate of two Rutgers schools, I should be able to step up and do something a bit more.’”
Sampson-Landers says that her Rutgers degrees prepared her for a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, working for Johnson & Johnson, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Bayer Healthcare. As a researcher, she helped develop antibiotics, pregnancy and cholesterol tests, and a medication to prevent Chagas disease in children.
“I was very fortunate,” she says. “I had a good position in pharma and have enough that I can help others.” She hopes Rutgers alumni and friends of the university will consider a gift to support the Scarlet Promise Grants at a level that works best for them.
“If everybody chips in and gives a little bit, it will make a big difference in a lot of students’ lives,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, just what you can give.”