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UMass trustee Chioma Okwara’s story of perseverance shines light on ‘power of public education’

By Janjay Innis and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Chan Medical School Communications

September 16, 2021

The transformative $175 million gift to UMass Chan Medical School from The Morningside Foundation is significant not only because of the macro institutional impact it will make, but because of the lives it will touch in personal ways.

University of Massachusetts Board of Trustee member Noreen “Chioma” Okwara, MD’17, reflected on the meaning of the historic gift in a heartfelt speech given at the press conference announcing the gift on Sept. 7 in Boston. The personal story of Dr. Okwara, a clinician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and medical educator at Harvard Medical School, is one of purpose and perseverance. An immigrant from Kenya, Okwara said she decided to become a physician after her 9-year-old brother was unable to access medical care for injuries sustained from a car accident, resulting in his death.

She said the first time she shared her aspiration to someone outside of her support circle, a colleague, she was called “a dreamer” in a way that made her goals appear unrealistic and beyond her reach.

“I wasn’t offended or disappointed or hurt,” she said, speaking from the lectern at the UMass Club. “I knew that he was right. I spent the rest of that month contemplating career options that I deemed less laughable for someone of my background.”

But she was determined to make her dreams a reality and enrolled at UMass Boston and earned her bachelor’s in biology with high honors. Upon graduation, she conducted HIV research under the guidance of Anthony Fauci, MD, at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

In 2013, she enrolled at the then-School of Medicine at UMass Medical School. She gives credit to a host of mentors: Chancellor Michael F. Collins; William “Jerry” Durbin, MD, professor of pediatrics; Sonia Chimienti, MD, associate professor of medicine; former associate professor Randy Pellish, MD; and her “amazing classmates, all of whom made four tough years fly by.”

Okwara’s story highlights what she called the “transformational power of public education,” which, for many years was seen as a less sophisticated class of education. The unrestricted nature of this gift means that UMass Chan Medical School, renamed in honor of the Chan family and under the leadership of Chancellor Collins, will see to it that these funds are used toward teaching, research, public service and scholarships for students.

Okwara celebrated the direct connection between the gift and the global community when she said, “The extraordinary gift that The Morningside Foundation and the Chan Family are making today will go a long way toward changing lives, creating opportunities for people, and most importantly, allowing people from all walks of life to entertain dreams that will remain impactful for generations to come.”

In his remarks to the Medical School community that afternoon on the Worcester campus, Gerald Chan iterated the Chan family’s hope that this gift would “move beyond the transactional.”

Related links on UMassMed News:
University of Massachusetts announces $175 million transformational gift to its Medical School
Behind the historic gift: Gerald Chan’s remarks to UMass Chan Medical School community
UMass Medical School celebrates largest match ever with 127 residencies for the Class of 2017