A defining moment: Alumnus Joe Paturzo ’20 reflects on his Elon education

Paturzo, of Huntington Beach, California, credits scholarships and an internship at Johns Hopkins University with changing the trajectory of his future.

Joe Paturzo’s defining moment came during an internship last summer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Paturzo, then an Elon senior, worked with a team of doctors, lawyers and students examining aggressive billing practices of hospitals and the effects on patients. In addition to gathering large amounts of data, the team traveled the country talking to families who were struggling with the high cost of healthcare and mounting medical bills.

Paturzo ’20 recalled meeting a woman in New Mexico who had fallen behind on her hospital bills. What he heard was disturbing.

“We interviewed a waitress who was a single mother with four kids. She had her wages garnished because she couldn’t pay her medical bills,” Paturzo said. “These aren’t people who are trying to cheat the system. They’re hard-working Americans trying to feed their families, and they are stuck in the cycle of poverty and high medical bills.”

It was an eye-opening moment for the Huntington Beach, California, resident who had planned to become a doctor and focus on research.

“After that experience, I decided I’d rather spend time serving the community as a doctor rather than being in a lab creating the next treatment for a disease,” Paturzo said. “That experience has inspired me to pursue multiple advanced degrees to better inform myself about public health and policy.”

The research project Paturzo worked on is led by Dr. Marty Makary, a Hopkins surgeon, professor and best-selling author who has written extensively about the high cost of medical care and predatory billing practices. The stories Makary and the team gathered during their travels formed the basis of Makary’s latest book, “The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care—and How to Fix It.”

Paturzo said he learned a great deal working with Makary and the team and even attended a White House ceremony last summer when President Trump signed an executive order announcing new measures to increase transparency in medical costs.

“We found a lot of hospitals that were suing patients and going back on their moral obligation to treat those patients, and that wasn’t right,” Paturzo said. “Our healthcare system is so complicated, but when you really boil it down, it’s about serving patients. I’d like to be a community-based physician serving the local community and try to change policy in order to affect change on a larger scale.”

Paturzo took an important step in that journey in May when he earned his Elon degree in biochemistry, capping a college experience he described as “life-changing.” He’s looking forward to rejoining the team at Hopkins in July as a research fellow before heading to medical school in fall 2021.

Recently, Paturzo took time to reflect on his Elon experience and the people, programs and opportunities that changed his life. At the top of that list are two scholarships he received that made his Elon education possible. He’s also grateful for his faculty and staff mentors who challenged and guided him and for Elon’s engaged learning opportunities such as internships that positioned him for success.

All three of those opportunities — increasing support for scholarships, faculty and staff mentors, and access to engaged learning programs — are among the top funding priorities of the $250 million Elon LEADS Campaign. Paturzo shared his story as a featured speaker at Elon LEADS events in Charlotte and Raleigh last fall.

“I have nothing but gratitude for my Elon experience and the donors who made it possible,” he said. “I accomplished everything I set out to do socially, academically and professionally thanks to Elon. These are the people who have helped shape me to be the person I am today and set me up for the next chapter of my life and made it so enjoyable along the way.”

Joe Paturzo ’20 and his parents

Paturzo recalled sitting at the dining room table with his parents in 2016 wondering how they were going to pay for college. The answer? A scholarship in Elon’s Odyssey Program, which assists students with high financial need, and an Elon College Fellows scholarship.

“The scholarships I received paved the way for me to come to Elon, to study abroad and to live in Baltimore and have an incredible internship there,” he said. “I graduated with very little debt and I know how lucky I am. That’s been an unbelievable blessing for me and my family.”

Paturzo is also grateful for outstanding faculty and staff mentors who saw potential in him that he didn’t recognize in himself.

“I remember sitting in my first-year chemistry class and wondering if I was going to be able to make it,” he said. “It’s been funny to watch myself go from being that young, intimidated person to becoming the person I was meant to be and that’s because of the relationships I was able to build with my mentors.”

Among those mentors was Joel Karty, professor of chemistry.

“Joey was not only a really bright student, he’s diligent and responsible and inquisitive,” Karty said. “He was one of those students you’d give him the initial information and he’d think about it for a couple days and ask questions later that showed he’d gone deeper into the subject. Those are qualities you want any doctor to have and that will set you up for success in medicine and in life.”

Karty credits Paturzo with helping to create a strong sense of community in the Chemistry Department in the Dalton L. McMichael Sr. Science Center, where Paturzo spent much of his time.

“I remember when he would walk into the chemistry suite and there’d be a half dozen students in there talking or working on a project,” Karty said. “He’d poke his head in the door and all the students would turn around and yell, ‘Joey!’ He really lights up a room and genuinely connects with people.”

Graduating and leaving campus was bittersweet for Paturzo. He’s excited for the future yet there are many things he’ll miss about Elon.

“Elon’s campus is beautiful, but I’ll miss the people the most,” he said. “I’ll miss hanging out with my roommates, having a conversation with professors after class, seeing friends in the chemistry suite and watching my friends lead campus tours for the next generation of Elon students.”

Paturzo is eager to see how he can be of service to a world still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Where many see challenges, this future doctor sees opportunity.

“This virus has brought to light so many challenges in our healthcare system,” Paturzo said. “It has shown how vulnerable our underrepresented communities are in terms of coping with this pandemic and getting services. It has made me think how can we create better procedures and options to best suit patients? How can I best change policy to advocate for people who don’t have a voice, so if this situation arises again, the healthcare system can be better positioned to respond. I’m ready for the challenge.”

About the Elon LEADS Campaign  

With a $250 million goal, Elon LEADS is the largest fundraising campaign in the university’s history and will support four main funding priorities: scholarships for graduates the world needs, increase access to engaged learning opportunities such as study abroad, research and internships, support for faculty and staff mentors who matter and Elon’s iconic campus. To date, donors have contributed $192 million toward the goal.

Every gift to the university—including annual, endowment, capital, estate and other planned gifts—for any designation counts as a gift to the campaign, which will support students and strengthen Elon for generations to come. To learn more about how you can make an impact, visit www.elonleads.com.