A scholarship established by a University of Mississippi alumna and her family is helping ease the burden for pharmacy students from rural areas while also strengthening health care options for rural Mississippians.
The Eugene B. Polk Pharmacy Scholarship, created by Gary and Susan Cantrell, already has helped its first recipient, Simpson County native Stephen Rayborn, through the professional program at the School of Pharmacy.
Faith Houston, a second-year student from Laurel, is the newest recipient.
“I am full of thanks for the donors and their contribution,” Houston said. “I appreciate their investment in me and in the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy. The provision has been an answered prayer, and I cannot thank them enough.”
Kristopher Harrell, the school’s associate dean for academic affairs, also expressed gratitude for the Cantrells’ support.
“We are so grateful to receive funds for scholarships like these that make a huge impact on students, especially when they also are given as a tribute to pharmacy legends like the Polks,” Harrell said.
Susan Cantrell, CEO of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, said the act of generosity was inspired by her own experiences and encouraged by her husband.
“I was the third of three daughters raised by an amazing and very hardworking single mother,” she said. “With all three of us in college at the same time, we saw firsthand the challenges students and parents face in financing higher education.
“Scholarship funds can be the difference between someone being able to go to college or not.”
The Cantrells chose to name the scholarship for Susan Cantrell’s mentor, the late Eugene “Gene” Polk, who hired her as a clerk at his community pharmacy in Magee when she was in high school. The job sparked her interest in the profession.
“Both he and his daughter Judy were inspiring role models, and I learned from them both the important work of pharmacists in providing the care patients need,” Cantrell said.
While her job was technically to see to the retail and gift side of the business, Polk would sometimes request her help in the pharmacy typing labels or assisting with inventory.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think it was part of his plan to further ignite my interest in pharmacy and convince me to consider pharmacy as a career path,” she said.
In explaining why the scholarship targets students from rural counties, Cantrell said that with nearly nine in 10 Americans living within 5 miles of a pharmacy, pharmacists are among the most accessible health care providers.
“This is especially true in rural areas, where pharmacists are often the first line of contact for patients who are often older and less healthy than in urban areas,” she said. “Working in Polk’s Pharmacy gave me the opportunity to see the important role of pharmacists in addressing the health needs of the community.
“Increasing the availability of pharmacists and the patient care services they can provide in rural areas will provide tremendous benefits both to the community and to the state at large.”
Rayborn, the scholarship’s first recipient, graduated in May 2022 and is a resident at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.
“The award was truly a blessing and supported me in my pursuit of becoming a pharmacist,” he said. “I am very thankful to be able to represent my home county, and I hope that one day I will be able to help students pursue their dreams, just as this award has helped me.”
The Polk family has also contributed to the scholarship fund that pays tribute to the devoted husband of Edith Polk and father to Judy, Brinson and Sherrye.
Judy (Polk) Clark, now retired, finished out her career as pharmacy director for the Division of Medicaid. She said her father always encouraged her to diversify her experience and skills in the profession to stay ahead of the game.
“He was a real visionary because he thought things in pharmacy were going to modify and change,” she said.
Brinson Polk, also a pharmacist, continues in his father’s footsteps running the family pharmacy in Magee.
Gene Polk, a World War II veteran, graduated from Ole Miss in 1951 and declared that he would spend the rest of his days paying back his God, his country and the university that educated him. He died suddenly in 1991 at age 65, but his memory and legacy live on.
“My father was funny, tenderhearted and an Ole Miss fan through and through,” Clark said. “He cared deeply about his patients, and he instilled a true belief in his children to do the right thing and do our very best every single day.”