“In my class of 120, there were 14 African-American students, and only four of us were female. During that time, the majority of the African-American students came from small, historically black colleges and universities. Coming to UF, with the size of its campus, was very different for many of us. Finding that camaraderie and that family through the Office of Minority Relations gave us what we were used to,” Lofton says.
Pringle calls her father a champion for his students, both professionally and personally.
“My dad would advocate for minority students so that they had the opportunity to succeed alongside students who didn’t look like them,” Pringle says. “He knew there had to be a foundation to deal not only with the academic pressures of medical training, but also with the social pressures of being a minority in that environment.”
More than a father figure, Lofton says Sanders was a trailblazer who challenged his institution to share his values of inclusivity and diversity.
“Willie established a legacy not just with us students, but with the faculty and administration. He established a commitment to diversity that continues today,” Lofton says.
After a career spanning three decades, Sanders retired from UF in 1989 as a tenured associate professor of anatomy and cell biology. In 2010, following treatment for bladder cancer, Sanders was told he only had a few weeks left to live. His family organized a celebration of his life, held on the UF College of Medicine campus. More than 400 family members, friends, colleagues and former students attended the ceremony.
James Patrick O’Leary, MD ’67, executive assistant dean of clinical affairs at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, spoke at the celebration about his relationship with Sanders, both as a student in the mid-’60s and as a fellow faculty member years later.
“Will Sanders was a critical part of how the medical school became an internationally known institution,” O’Leary says. “He was an incredible resource, and he should be honored.”
One month to the day after the celebration of his life in 2010, Sanders passed away at age 81. Today, Sanders’ legacy continues at the UF College of Medicine in part through the Willie J. Sanders Scholarship Fund. Established in 2012, with early contributions from alumnae like Donna Baytop, MD ’76, and Renee Blanding, MD ’88, the Sanders scholarship supports students committed to making a contribution to a pluralistic community and a diverse student body. The fund has accrued more than 100 donors who have given more than $250,000 to students.
“I know my dad’s legacy lives on. His students continue to give back to UF because of what my dad meant to them,” Pringle says. “My dad advocated for his students, and he was relentless in the work he did for others. I want future generations to know what my dad meant to his students of all races and backgrounds.”