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Aaron Briggs: It’s Personal

A philanthropist at heart, Aaron Briggs (DC’15) ’19, relishes the opportunity to lend a helping hand. “I believe those who have more and who are privileged—like myself—have a responsibility to help those who have less,” he says. Though his family is far from what most would describe as privileged.

Growing up in suburban San Diego, Briggs says he had a great childhood and couldn’t imagine needing more than he already had. “I thought we were wealthy,” he says. “It wasn’t until I grew older that I began to see my family’s financial struggles.”

I believe those who have more and who are privileged—like myself—have a responsibility to help those who have less."

- Aaron Briggs '19

In contrast, Briggs’s father grew up in a tough, crime-ridden Philadelphia neighborhood riddled by gang activity. With help from a benefactor who saw his potential, he attended a private school, which in turn helped him get into college. “He was lucky, breaking the cycle of poverty is difficult and the majority of his family is still stuck in the hood,” Briggs notes.

Although Briggs’s parents made education a priority, the family’s financial instability made it difficult for their sons to remain in a private school. With generous tuition assistance from their grandparents, the boys were able to remain in school until the end of Briggs’s sophomore year. When he turned 16, Briggs began working in order to contribute to tuition. “Working during school was exhausting, but my father’s experience taught me about the value of a good education,” he says. “I was willing to strive to ensure that my brother and I were able to get the best education possible.”

While Briggs understood the value of education, he recalls being unaware of how to prepare himself for college, though he dreamed of becoming a doctor. “I didn’t know that I should be taking advanced classes and didn’t really think that I could handle them anyway. I didn’t even know that you were supposed to study for the SAT,” he says.

Due to his lackluster academic record, he was reluctantly admitted to advance placement biology his junior year. But once there he found a mentor in his teacher, Mrs. Vandenbroek, who recognized his potential. As his interest in biology and medicine intensified, she urged Briggs to take challenging classes, and she helped him become a competitive college applicant. “If it wasn’t for Mrs. Vandenbroek, I can assure you I wouldn’t be here now,” he says.

When college application season rolled around, Mrs. Vandenbroek encouraged him to apply to Ivy League schools because of their need-blind admission policies and generous financial aid. “It was really a shot in the dark,” he says. “I can’t stress enough how much of a miracle it was that I got accepted into Dartmouth.” He was one step closer to becoming a doctor.

Briggs’s experience, coupled with that of his father, made an indelible mark on him—it contributed to his growing awareness of the role mentors and philanthropists play in the lives of others.

He entered Dartmouth with an eye toward community service and philanthropy. Along with his roommate Haider Ghiasuddin (DC’15), who shared similar values, the pair first embarked on community service. They volunteered with a few student groups, but became disillusioned—unconvinced they were making a difference, the two turned to philanthropy.

They began with cookies.

We decided to raise money for the poorly-funded, struggling orphanage."

- Aaron Briggs '19

On a trip to visit family in Pakistan, Ghiasuddin discovered an orphanage that needed help. “We decided to raise money for the poorly-funded, struggling orphanage,” Briggs says. “My mother has a good cookie recipe, so we decided to bake and sell cookies.”

The plan was simple, but neither were experienced bakers and they made rookie errors. After seven consecutive hours of baking they delivered the cookies. Net profit: $70. “That was rough—it was clear we needed to rework our strategy,” he says.

Tapping into the undergraduate weekend culture they set up a burger stand on Friday and Saturday nights catering to hungry students, raising $200 in one night. Buoyed by that success, they continued selling burgers and subsequently raised nearly $1,500 for the orphanage.

The following year, Briggs joined Zeta Psi and became service chair. “It’s a job nobody wants because it’s difficult finding people interested in service work. It’s not why people join fraternities,” he says. “To be honest, I took the position for the resources—it more or less gave me 30 guys who needed to complete a service requirement every term.” Briggs notes the fraternity had not been previously engaged in significant service work.

Their accomplishments were prolific. “We provided direct service with a number of local organizations, including Students Fighting Hunger and Habitat for Humanity, while simultaneously expanding the scope of the fundraising initiative begun by Haider and I,” he says.

Briggs next forged a strong relationship with WISE, an Upper Valley nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting victims of domestic violence. While Dartmouth fraternities were gaining notoriety, the Zeta Psi brothers were giving WISE a helping hand—fundraising, repainting, furnishing the shelter, and moving the residents into local housing. “This was a huge statement of trust,” he proudly says. “The location of the shelter is secret, but they gave our fraternity access.”

After more than two years as service chair, Briggs and Zeta Psi brother Jon Griffith (DC’15), joined forces and together the two developed a strong legacy of service.

On the academic front, Briggs pursued his fascination with medical science. While working in a neuroimmunology lab at the Scripps Research Institute, where he performed surgeries on mice, his research mentor told him he would make an excellent physician. “Those few words of encouragement profoundly boosted my confidence,” he says. “I never doubted what I wanted to do, but at that exact moment I decided to do whatever it took to achieve my dream of becoming a physician. I’ve never looked back.”

I never doubted what I wanted to do, but at that exact moment I decided to do whatever it took to achieve my dream of becoming a physician. I’ve never looked back."

- Aaron Briggs '19

Wanting to stay connected to Dartmouth and the Upper Valley community, and to be close to his younger brother who is now a Dartmouth freshman, Briggs applied to Geisel School of Medicine through its Early Assurance program, which gives Dartmouth juniors an opportunity to apply to Geisel. “When I was accepted early assurance I could hardly believe it—I consider myself very blessed to be here right now,” Briggs says.

As a first-year medical student, he continues building on the fundraising foundation he created. Although no longer service chair, Briggs helped Zeta Psi raise $1,100 through their Homecoming Cheeseburger Sale, selling 300 burgers during last fall’s homecoming weekend. The sale netted $900 for WISE. The remainder was used to purchase food for the Upper Valley Haven’s food pantry.

This spring, he helped organize the Geisel Urban Health Scholars trip to New Orleans. Well known for its food and unique culture, Briggs notes the city is also notoriously poor with high levels of homelessness, violence, and HIV. “We visited organizations that provide medical resources to the underserved to learn how care is distributed to these populations,” he says. “We also developed an understanding of some of the unique challenges faced by both care providers and the underprivileged, urban communities they serve. The toxic social and environmental factors that cripple the health of low income communities are not always obvious or intuitive and it’s really important for med students who eventually want to serve in these areas to understand them.”

Briggs is doing exactly what he wants to do and says he can’t imagine doing anything else. His goal is to get the best medical education possible in order to provide the best care he can to future patients.

“I just love helping people, but I’m especially passionate about serving those less fortunate than myself,” he emphatically says. “I didn’t do anything to deserve the excellent upbringing and education I received, for all intents and purposes I got lucky, and I think this unmerited privilege carries with it a responsibility to care for those who were dealt a less desirable hand in life.”