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Meet Williamson Medalist Erik Kelly
Erik Kelly ’10
In the rural countryside of northeast Mexico, Erik Kelly '10 felt helpless. The biology major at Franklin & Marshall College had traveled south of the border with International Service Learning to provide medical treatment to underserved populations, including many people who do not have access to even the most basic health care. Kelly met a farmer who had a bacterial infection in his foot, and the diagnosis was grim: the farmer's entire leg would need to be amputated.
"As a farmer, he can't provide for his family without his leg," Kelly says. "It transcended medicine for me. It was an eye-opening experience to see how much we take for granted."
But there were uplifting moments, too. In his first true interaction with a patient, Kelly helped to diagnose an ear infection in a 7-year-old girl. After receiving medication, the girl returned the favor by hugging Kelly and whispering "muchas gracias."
Kelly's trip to Mexico during his junior year was just one part of an undergraduate career filled with real-world experience, imaginative research and community service. He was honored at Saturday's Commencement ceremony with the 2010 Williamson Medal, Franklin & Marshall's most prestigious academic award to a student.
"To this very second, it's surreal," Kelly said two days after receiving the honor. "I've had a lot of people encouraging me along the way. It's an honor to be in this type of company."
It would be easy to mistake Kelly's list of achievements for those of a physician or scholar. In addition to his medical trip to Mexico, he has co-authored a presentation given at the Pennsylvania Society for Thoracic Surgery; conducted research on the underlying causes of heart abnormalities in people who have Down's syndrome; answered questions from scholars at the annual conference of the Society for Developmental Biology; and witnessed open-heart surgery from inside the operating room.
After his first year at F&M, Kelly secured internships in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Lehigh Valley Hospital and the Regional Heart Center. The internships enabled him to gain knowledge directly from the surgical team, an opportunity usually reserved for medical students. He collected and analyzed data on coronary artery bypass graft surgical procedures.
"When the doctor first called me during the application process, he asked, 'Are you the F&M student?'" Kelly says. "It was one of the first times I realized what a great reputation F&M has. I can't think of many experiences I've had where F&M hasn't been in some way responsible, either by funding or reputation."
Even as he packed his schedule with experiences to help prepare for a career in medicine, Kelly made an equally sustained effort to make a positive impact on the local community. He served as an assistant to "Putting it Together in the Community," an orientation program offered by the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement, as a sophomore, junior and senior.
"We spend a week with underprivileged first-grade students, just giving them an outlet to be kids," Kelly says. "We take them to the park, the orchard, the playground and the petting zoo. For us, these are things that normal first-grade kids do all the time. But the kids tell us they've never been to the park literally two blocks from their homes."
Kelly also has been one of the principal organizers of the Bonchek House Community Outreach Dinner for the homeless and other needy families. "With great opportunity comes great responsibility to give back," Kelly says. "We get the nicest thank you notes from people who come to the dinner. It changes their beliefs on what F&M is all about."
The next stop on Kelly's road to a career in medicine will be Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he will enroll in the fall. Even though he has graduated from F&M, he continues to work on his senior thesis. He will remain on campus through June to work with Clara Moore, associate professor of biology, on the causes of heart abnormalities associated with Down's syndrome. He also has volunteered to help with Beginnings, an annual event for incoming first-year students.
"I'm not ready to leave yet," he says.