Lifestyles of the cash-strapped and not-yet-famous medical students

What happens when four medical students live under one roof, sharing bathrooms, one kitchen and all chores?

By: April Frawley Lacey

The student loans are piling up. About $120,000 so far. It could be more by now. Jennifer Dettloff isn’t sure. Keeping the exact amount of her medical school debt in her head at all times isn’t exactly a cheery thought.

No one said medical school would be cheap, but tuition isn’t the only cost pushing the fourth-year UF medical student deeper into debt. The other costs add up, too: rent for an apartment she barely spends time in. Utilities. Books. Gas to get her to and from rotations in Jacksonville. Healthy food. Health insurance, which medical students are required to have.

While some students have parental pocketbooks to lean on, Dettloff pays her own way and has struggled to make ends meet each semester. But during the spring semester, Dettloff didn’t run out of money for the first time since she entered the UF College of Medicine. How?

She got a new address.

In the middle of her third year of medical school, Dettloff moved into the Rogers Rotary House, located less than a mile from Shands at UF. For two decades, UF undergrads have cycled through the tidy, ranch-style home, sponsored by the Southern Scholarship Foundation. But last year, the foundation decided to dedicate one of its nine scholarship houses in Gainesville to female medical students, opening spots for nine students to live rent-free in the house.


Photo by Sarah Kiewel

“If they had had this when I was in first year, the amount of stress it would have taken off my life would have been immense,” Dettloff says.

Along with a diploma and the initials M.D., the average medical school graduate takes away $119,000 in debt when he or she leaves medical school, according to the Association of American Medical Schools. For students who come to medical school already facing financial hardships, the burden can be even greater.

That’s one of the reasons the Southern Scholarship Foundation decided to gear one of its Gainesville houses — there are scholarship houses in Tallahassee and Fort Myers, too — toward medical students.

“We thought if we could help out with that debt just a little bit, we should do it,” said Teresa Turner, the foundation’s director of student affairs.

Previously a scholarship house for men, the Rogers Rotary House opened to medical students last fall. Although the house is now reserved for medical students, the first batch of dwellers included a handful of graduate students, too, mostly because the foundation didn’t have quite enough time to spread the word about the new house.

“There are very few scholarships available for medical students, as opposed to undergraduates,” says Patrick Duff, MD, associate dean for student affairs. “It also is almost impossible for a medical student to have a part-time job during medical school other than the summer after the first year.  Most students depend entirely on loans.”

The timing was perfect for Kari Mader, who’d lived in Southern Scholarship houses as an undergrad and was preparing for her first year in medical school.

“It’s definitely harder to get (financial) help in medical school than in undergrad,” says Mader, one of three first-years who moved into the house last fall. “The costs are insane. Going from $1,500 in tuition a semester in undergrad to $13,000 a semester is a huge difference.”

Like many medical students, Mader needs loans to pay her tuition, but living in the house shaves off hundreds of dollars from her expenses each month. The residents don’t pay rent but do split utility bills and other expenses. Like other Southern Scholarship houses, the group has its own internal hierarchy to determine who takes care of what responsibilities, too.

“Along with a diploma and the initials M.D., the average medical school graduate takes away $119,000 in debt when he or she leaves medical school.”

—Association of American Medical Schools

But the savings aren’t the only thing Mader likes about living with other medical students. Because of their hectic study schedules, the women actually don’t spend much time together as a group, but when she needs it, Mader knows she has a built-in support system waiting at home.

“Once the program is really established, it will be girls from all years. It’s a great opportunity for mentorship,” Mader says. “(Dettloff) has already been that for us. She just remembers everything.”

Huddled around a picnic table on the side of the house, the residents who stayed in town over the summer discussed what to make for dinner the next night. It’s not something they usually do, eat as a group, but the students wanted to take advantage of their comparably breezy summer schedules to spend a little time together.

The verdict? Pancakes. But as they debated the merits of homemade pancakes versus IHOP and whether they really needed grits, the women laughed and joked.

Those moments are one of the best things about living in the house, Mader says.

“It’s a family. It’s a support group,” she says. “And that’s really important when you are going through things. Even though we don’t always eat together, we have definitely been able to be there for each other as we’re dealing with the classes and life changes of medical school.”