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Health Center Today, November 20, 2009

Gift Supports Vision in Arts and Medicine

Largest Gift Ever from School of Medicine Alum

Photo of Kevin Claffey, Ph.D.,  with Joyce Bray, Marsha Goldstein, and Judy Donofrio

Photo courtesy of
James Madison University

By John Sponauer

Elizabeth Swallow, M.D. ’83, has a sense of purpose to her life and philanthropy that comes down to two main themes: reward excellence and give back.

That personal vision and her support of UConn’s own aspirations have now resulted in a $3-million planned gift intention to support the School of Medicine and the School of Fine Arts. It would be the largest gift ever received from a graduate of the School of Medicine.

Swallow is not easily dissuaded, a trait that served her well while applying to UConn’s School of Medicine at the unconventional age of 35 and learning to play piano at 60. Her gift reflects those dual interests, supporting faculty and students in the School of Medicine and the development of an “All-Steinway School” at the School of Fine Arts. She says that the tough economic conditions make giving more important than ever, as a way of inspiring others to contribute and fostering efforts that need that extra boost in challenging times.

"If you ask me, Why do I give?, my answer really is, Why wouldn’t I? I think you have to be passionate about something. And you have to invest in people who are doing the right thing and have vision, especially if they’ve been told ‘you can’t do this’ and they know they can," she says.

That experience of being given a chance—at a medical education or to learn an art—has driven Swallow’s life.

While she grew up in a family dedicated to medicine—her father was a physician and her mother was a laboratory technician—Swallow didn’t "want it bad enough," she says, and began careers as a scientist, health care administrator and lobbyist. Then one day, while stuck in a blizzard, she had the time to think about what she wanted to do for the remainder of her life.

Swallow inquired about admission into the UConn School of Medicine. She was told that the history of non-traditional students completing the lengthy application process was not encouraging at the time, and would be particularly difficult for someone established in another career.

"That was like waving a red flag in front of a bull," she recalls.

Now, newly retired from a long and distinguished practice as a community OB/GYN in rural Virginia, Swallow says that life experience gained before medical school made a tremendous difference throughout her career.

"I learned that I loved surgery, and I also loved developing a relationship with my patients. Particularly in my field of medicine, it’s a wonderful thing when you can build that relationship and trust, and your patients feel that you are helping them heal just by your presence. It’s very personal," Swallow explains. 

She says that same passion for the work was evident from talking to Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D., vice president for health affairs at the UConn Health Center, and inspired her to support the School of Medicine. Swallow’s intention is to fund scholarships and professorships in the school, as well as faculty development.

"When I met Dr. Laurencin for the first time, he talked about vision. He talked about investing in the future, in the faculty, and looking at a big picture for where the school could go," she says. "I want him to use this gift as an impetus for something that is forward-looking. I think he embodies that."

In 2006, her personal love of the piano led to major gifts at nearby James Madison University for music scholarships and for creating an All-Steinway School there. She soon realized that she could provide the same type of support for her own alma mater.

Through mutual connections with Dean David Woods at UConn’s School of Fine Arts, she learned about UConn’s hopes of becoming an All-Steinway School, and saw something she clearly could support, both at a specific level and also in a visionary way.

"I think that you have to give back to your own school, because where would any of us be without education?" says Swallow. "For a donor, it’s not about giving, it’s about giving back. You have to make that dream come true for others, just as you had it made possible for you.  I think that’s why we are put on this earth."

For more information about supporting the School of Fine Arts, please contact the UConn Foundation's development department. For more information about supporting the School of Medicine, please contact the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at the UConn Health Center.