Cornell University: $5.6 million gift expands debt-free scholarship funding for medical students

Building on their longtime commitment to social justice, equity and diversity, Louise and Leonard Riggio have made a $5.6 million gift to Weill Cornell Medicine to establish a named scholarship for medical students with financial need who are Black.

This scholarship, which will be awarded as part of Weill Cornell Medicine’s debt-free scholarship program for all financially eligible medical students, will cover the full cost of attendance for all four years of medical school.

The Holcomb-Riggio scholarship – named in honor of Dr. Kevin Holcomb, associate dean for admissions and professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology – will be awarded to two enrolled students each year.

Weill Cornell Medicine’s debt-free scholarship program provides financial support to all medical students with demonstrated financial need, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender. The Riggio gift provides essential support for this program, expanding the pool of available funds, while also drawing attention to the critical need for a diverse physician population.

An outgrowth of the Riggios’ civil-rights advocacy, the scholarship aims to ultimately lead to increasing numbers of Black doctors in Black communities – and a decline in the health disparities that have plagued communities of color, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This scholarship is a little drop in a huge ocean,” Riggio said. “But we’re hoping that other people will see what we’re doing and say, ‘That’s a lovely idea. We’d like to join,’ or ‘We’d like to do this ourselves.’”

Holcomb, who met the Riggios through a family member – a former patient – is working closely with the couple to fine-tune the details of the scholarship program, with plans for a mentoring component that will involve the doctor’s ongoing participation.

“Mr. and Mrs. Riggio’s extraordinary gift will help us continue to provide superior medical training to a diverse group of students, with the long-range goal of eliminating health-care disparities and improving quality of life,” said Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. “Diversity and mentorship are tied together inextricably in this scholarship, illustrating the strength of what we can do when we come together as a community.”

“Having my name on this scholarship fills me with pride and serves as a source of motivation to ensure the success of the Holcomb-Riggio scholars,” said Holcomb, who believes the gift will have a powerful impact on society. “The underrepresentation of Black physicians is a critical factor in the increased burden of disease seen in the Black community. The Riggios and I realize this is not a matter of altruism – it’s a matter of life and death.”

Leonard Riggio, the founder and retired CEO of Barnes & Noble, has long been recognized for his advocacy and philanthropy, with awards including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the Frederick Douglass Medallion and the Americanism Award from the Anti-Defamation League. The couple are known for their boots-on-the-ground activism, and view philanthropy as a natural companion to generosity of spirit.

“We were raised to be good citizens, and that’s how we’ve raised our children. That’s our credo,’’ said Louise Riggio. “If you’ve got a leg up, give somebody else a leg up. Pay it forward.”

“There is nothing more noble than saving lives,” Leonard Riggio said,” and when you’re a doctor, you’re not only saving lives – you’re making lives better.’’

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