Still working to pay off his own medical school debt, Frank Clark and his wife, Jennifer, wanted to do what they could to help the next generation of physicians.

“You hear a lot of times about paying it forward and you recognize how you've been the recipient of scholarships throughout your life and that people have invested in you,” Clark said. “We can invest our time and talents into the future leaders.”

At the time, Clark was a member of a newly formed Dean’s Council on Advancement at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Clark was recruited to the council just as he was moving away from Southwest Virginia, leaving his psychiatry role with Carilion Clinic and faculty position with VTCSOM.

Clark served on the council for its first three years, despite living in South Carolina, where he currently serves as a clinical assistant professor for the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville and medical director and division chief for the adult patient and consult liaison services for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Prisma Health-Upstate.

While on the council, Clark felt compelled to not only give his time and talents, but also his treasure by creating a current-use scholarship.

“My wife and I wanted to establish this scholarship with the hope of recruiting more underrepresented students into medicine. As a Black male, for example, I make up 2 percent of the physician workforce, so there's a dearth of Black male physicians and other underrepresented groups,” Clark said. “Diversifying the physician workforce is imperative if we hope to narrow the health disparity gap and increase the life expectancy of the communities we serve.”

According to the AMA, fewer than 10 percent of physicians throughout the U.S. are from an underrepresented minority group, including African American/Black, Native American, Alaska Native, or Hispanic. “There's this statement that's been circulating around the medical community that you can't be what you can't see,” Clark said.

Beyond visibility, debt is another factor. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), almost three-quarters of medical students graduate with debt with the median amount around $200,000. But those who are in groups that are underrepresented in medicine come out with higher debt compared to their white counterparts.

“It can be very overwhelming because, you know, the goal is to produce competent, compassionate physicians that are going to serve their community, but that debt seems to linger over people, as I know it has for me,” Clark said.

Despite still paying off his own medical school debt, Clark and his wife, Jennifer, gave a $5,000 gift to get the scholarship fund off the ground. Knowing they couldn’t provide more on their own, Clark began asking for support from his family, friends, peers, and colleagues. His grassroots fundraising work has paid off. Initially, he hoped to raise $12,000 over the course of 2021. Just over three months into the year, the goal has been doubled already, with their network providing 163 gifts totaling almost $24,000.

“I was overwhelmed with tears of joy,” Clark said. “The COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustices, and political divide have taken an emotional toll on our country. It is nice to find a silver lining that shines during these dire times.”

Over the past decade, VTCSOM has made strides to diversify its student body. About 22 percent of students are from ethnic or racial minorities; another 22 percent are considered low-income; and 18 percent are first-generation college students.

“Scholarships are critical to helping recruit underrepresented students, as are role models like my friend, Dr. Clark. Frank helps diverse applicants by not only setting off some of their debt to attend medical school, but helping them envision being here and thriving as a physician,” said NL Bishop, senior associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and student vitality at VTCSOM and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at Carilion Clinic. “When Frank asked me to contribute to this scholarship, I was honored to say yes and support his critical efforts.”

To continue its progress and find opportunities to continue improving on the medical school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work, an InclusiveVTCSOM task force was formed. The 150-plus member task force released a report in February outlining new ideas for the medical school, many of which will be incorporated into the medical school’s soon-to-be released strategic plan.

In part through the renewed diversity focus, the scholarship established by the Clarks is receiving additional attention in the medical school community, with the Class of 2021 commiting its class gift fundraising to the scholarship. So far, 86 percent of the class has contributed; if 100 percent gives to the class gift, an additional $6,000 challenge will be added from generous donors. The gifts from the class are in addition to the 163 donors Clark recruited to give to the fund.

During Virginia Tech’s Giving Day Feb. 24-25, VTCSOM Dean Lee Learman and Dean’s Council on Advancement Vice Chair Jackie Wieland committed a $10,000 gift to the scholarship if 50 people donated on Giving Day. The goal was met with more than 100 contributions, 15 of which were marked for the diversity scholarship fund specifically, adding another $1,775 to the fund, beyond those who contributed because of Clark’s personal fundraising efforts.

“People think that they have to give thousands of dollars to make an impact, and I don't believe that's the case,” Clark said. “Small gifts accumulate over time and make a difference. One of my favorite scriptures is found in Luke 12:48: 'To whom much is given, much is required.'”

“Frank’s advocacy and commitment show that every gift makes a difference and can lead to significant impact, thanks to the power of community,” said Learman. “We are incredibly thankful for Frank’s support, through his own donations and incredible work to inspire additional donations from his vast network. The scholarship is truly making a difference for our students.”

Clark would love for tuition to be fully covered through philanthropy at VTCSOM and other medical schools one day, but knows it will require the full efforts of varieties of communities, big and small. “Medical schools talk about being centers of excellence. But what does that look like? Well, diversity is excellence to me,” Clark said. “We're recruiting individuals from diverse backgrounds that are going to carry the torch that will be the light for their communities.”

Contributions can be made to the VTC Diversity Excellence in Medicine Scholarship Fund, started by Clark and his wife, on the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine giving website. The medical school has several other scholarships that have a preference to be awarded to students who are underrepresented in medicine, including the Morgan Dana Harrington Memorial Scholarship, the Charter Class Scholarship, and a newly formed Nussbaum Scholarship.