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On Modest Dreams, Becoming a Doctor and Giving Back

Both came from humble, even underprivileged beginnings. Both know what it’s like to grow up with low expectations, to struggle against sexism and with insufficient money to realize much beyond modest goals.

Scholarship recipient Zyra Cortez checks the blood pressure of Germaine Kowatch.

Kathy Assiff and Janet Osuch found encouragement at Michigan State University, particularly in the College of Human Medicine, that they could achieve more than either had dared dream. Now Osuch and Assiff have something else in common: both plan to leave much of their estates to fund endowed scholarships to help struggling students become physicians.

Both came from humble, even underprivileged beginnings. Both know what it’s like to grow up with low expectations, to struggle against sexism and with insufficient money to realize much beyond modest goals.

“I know the stories of a lot of the students who are accepted here,” Osuch says, “and a lot of their stories are like mine.”

No one in her family had gone to college, and she never expected to either. A high school counselor urged her to consider a career in health care.

“Women weren’t given the same opportunities that they’re given now,” Osuch says, so she took a six-month course to become a radiological technologist. That piqued her interest in becoming a medical technologist, which would require a four-year degree.

“I had no concept of what a university looked like,” she recalls. “I thought it would look like my high school,” with all classes crammed into a one building.

After Osuch earned her degree, a co-worker suggested they both apply to medical school.

“It was beyond my wildest dream to become a physician,” she says, “but I knew I was bored. I had to do something.”

The College of Human Medicine saw in her what she had failed to see in herself: the potential to become a great physician.

“The College of Human Medicine nurtured me,” Osuch says. “It reinforced all the values I had for the kind of doctor I wanted to be, a humanistic doctor, someone who would be kind to her patients.”

She became a surgeon, a professor of surgery and now the College of Human Medicine’s assistant dean for preclinical curriculum. And now she is giving something back. Each year she gives a scholarship for a struggling student, and she plans to leave a substantial amount of her estate as an endowment for future scholarships.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a few years,” Osuch says. “It’s going to be for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford medical school. There’s nothing that means more to me than the profession of medicine and helping the next generation of physicians. It’s the greatest feeling in the world, it really is.”

That’s something else she and Kathy Assiff share.

Assiff’s mother took care of the kids while her father, a boiler operator for the Lansing Board of Water and Light, worked hard to support his family. His education went through the eighth grade. She would be the first member of her family to attend college.

Raising the money for tuition wasn’t easy, something Assiff never forgot. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MSU, she went to work for the university, first in the financial aid office. “Then I got to thinking,” she says, “and I saw the need of students in terms of debt,” a burden she, herself, had carried.

Now as director of the student program on the College of Human Medicine’s Flint Campus, Assiff works closely with medical students.

“I work with third- and fourth-year students every day,” she says.

“I support them emotionally.”

Recently she began to think of supporting them financially.

This spring, she gave the first of what she intends to be an annual scholarship. And, like Osuch, she plans to leave the bulk of her estate as an endowment, a perpetual fund to help other medical students long after she’s gone.

“It just makes me feel good, the fact that I can make a small difference in a student’s debt,” Assiff says. “At least the students know that somebody cares about them. I decided maybe it would serve as an incentive for other people to give scholarships. In fact, it already has.”

College of Human Medicine Dean Marsha Rappley, MD, has made it a priority to increase scholarship support, particularly since the college attracts many students who have the commitment and intelligence, if not the money, to complete a medical education. Assiff’s scholarship will be for needy students from Genesee and Ingham counties, particularly those interested in primary care and serving the underserved.

“I believe in the college’s commitment to primary care,” she says. “You can’t help but be proud to be part of this college that attracts all these bright, young students who want to serve. This is another way to show we care about them. It’s my way of saying, ‘I was here.’”

For more information on supporting scholarships in the College of Human Medicine, contact Director of Constituent Programs Suzette Hittner at or call (517) 884-7430.