Miguel Guzman ’24, a native of Lima, Peru, is a senior biotechnology major in the College of Arts and Sciences with an entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises minor in the Whitman School of Management. His research centers on developing bio-enabled protein…
Donor’s ‘Belief in Potential’ Motivates $1.5M Gift
Like many young women with an interest in science, Laura Feldman ’81 thought about a career in medicine when she entered Syracuse University. But she was daunted by the statistics and her future prospects: At the time, women were not well-represented in medical school; in fact, less than a quarter of medical school graduates were female.
Feldman still majored in biology but decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue a law degree. She eventually entered into practice with her father and grandfather, concentrating in medical malpractice and complex litigation. She formed the first all-female owned trial law firm in Philadelphia and specializes in medical malpractice, drug and medical device injury, and other personal injury cases. Feldman also serves as chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Public Interest Section, advocating on behalf of individuals who are often marginalized by society.
Despite her professional success, Feldman has never forgotten the challenges she faced as an undergraduate. That memory—and the desire to ease the journey for others—is what drives her philanthropy. In her latest gift to Syracuse University through the Forever Orange Campaign, Feldman has bequeathed $1.5 million to the SUSTAIN program in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). Launched in 2017 with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Strategic Undergraduate STEM Talent Acceleration Initiative (SUSTAIN), provides scholarships and academic support along with professional and social experiences to attract and retain students from underrepresented groups in science and mathematics (STEM).
“What I learned as a biology major served me well in my career,” says Feldman, whose specialty demands a deep understanding of medicine and pharmaceuticals. “I like to think I ended up in a non-conventional science job. That’s why I want to help students with an interest in science see the possibilities they might explore.”
The world of possibilities is what SUSTAIN is all about. “Many of our young scholars are first-generation college students who come to Syracuse thinking of being a doctor or veterinarian or dentist,” says John W. Tillotson, associate professor of STEM Education and chair of the Department of Science Teaching in A&S. “What we try to do in SUSTAIN is expose them to all the many career possibilities beyond the traditional. We bring in professionals, give them early immersion research experience and help them with internships and job shadowing. We open their eyes to what exists out there in STEM fields.”
Tillotson says the SUSTAIN program is truly turning the tide for many students interested in STEM fields. “Typically, only about 40% of students who enter college with the intention of being a STEM major graduate with a STEM degree,” he says. “Many of them change course in their first year. With the support and encouragement SUSTAIN provides our students, our first-year retention rate is 95% and our graduation rate is over 75% into STEM fields.”
That kind of statistical success impressed Feldman and inspired her first gift to SUSTAIN, a $250,000 five-year commitment to support the program. She was even more impressed and inspired by the letters from SUSTAIN students who wrote to thank her for her ongoing support.
“I was contemplating transferring out of a STEM major because it was becoming too stressful and time-consuming,” wrote one student. “The SUSTAIN scholarship’s resources and guidance are the primary reason I am still studying a science major today.”
“I started college with the intention of being pre-med and wanting to go on to medical school. Joining a lab as a freshman, and getting to listen to special SUSTAIN speakers, helped me realize I would prefer a career in research,” wrote another student. “With the extra support and guidance of the SUSTAIN program, I was able to finish my undergrad degree a full year early with a major in biology and a minor in anthropology.”
Feldman, who serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Board, says she was moved to tears by letters from students like this one: “Overall, my experience in SUSTAIN was as influential as it was because it was the first time that anyone had been willing to invest in me because they believed I had the potential to succeed.”
The “belief in potential” strikes Feldman close to home. She became foster parent to five siblings, ages 6 to 17, after their mother died. “Their mother was one of my father’s clients,” Feldman says. “She died of AIDS after a blood transfusion. Her legal case involved negligence in the medical care she received that led to the transfusion. Before she died, she made me promise to take care of her kids. I quickly realized the many challenges these kids would face in their pursuit of the American dream.”
Feldman adds that she truly believed in her kids’ potential: the oldest became a first-generation college student; all are now adults working in fields they enjoy.
“Belief in potential” is a critical element in SUSTAIN. Tillotson says students who come from challenging backgrounds—whether low-income or historically marginalized groups—often suffer from “imposter syndrome.”
“They find it difficult to fit into the culture at many universities, feeling like they are not talented enough to compete with their peers,” Feldman says. Through faculty mentorship and other support, they gain confidence and recognize their capabilities.
“The SUSTAIN program is a fine example of what we mean when we say Syracuse University is committed to preparing our students for personal and professional success,” says College of Arts and Sciences Interim Dean Lois Agnew. “That preparation goes well beyond the classroom. We create a holistic environment for students to thrive, give them the opportunities to explore their passions, allow them to see what success looks like, and provide them the tools they need to get there.”
The endowed fund created by Feldman’s latest gift will ensure the SUSTAIN program can continue in perpetuity to carve pathways to success for countless students. “Laura is making a long-term investment in the human capital these students possess,” says Tillotson. “She is investing in the future well-being of these young people, who have demonstrated their desire to pay it forward.” Tillotson says SUSTAIN graduates stay involved with the program, motivating the students who come after them.
Feldman is heartened by the fact that her gift will “keep on giving” through SUSTAIN graduates. “I’d like the people who benefited from my gift to give back to future generations,” she says.
Judging from the letters written to her, that’s already happening: “I really appreciate your generosity and your gift has allowed me to attain my goals,” writes one SUSTAIN graduate. “You have motivated me to give back to students in the future so that they too have the opportunity to achieve their goals.”
About Syracuse University
Syracuse University is a private research university that advances knowledge across disciplines to drive breakthrough discoveries and breakout leadership. Our collection of 13 schools and colleges with over 200 customizable majors closes the gap between education and action, so students can take on the world. In and beyond the classroom, we connect people, perspectives and practices to solve interconnected challenges with interdisciplinary approaches. Together, we’re a powerful community that moves ideas, individuals and impact beyond what’s possible.
About Forever Orange: The Campaign for Syracuse University
Orange isn’t just our color. It’s our promise to leave the world better than we found it. Forever Orange: The Campaign for Syracuse University is poised to do just that. Fueled by more than 150 years of fearless firsts, together we can enhance academic excellence, transform the student experience and expand unique opportunities for learning and growth. Forever Orange endeavors to raise $1.5 billion in philanthropic support, inspire 125,000 individual donors to participate in the campaign, and actively engage one in five alumni in the life of the University. Now is the time to show the world what Orange can do. Visit foreverorange.syr.edu to learn more.