‘This reaffirms that, yes, you belong here’

Fifteen years after closing her textbooks, Melissa Koci packed up the life she built out west and came home to chase a dream she thought she had abandoned as a teenager.

With a decade-long career behind her and exam prep books in hand, Koci worried about tackling medical school later in life. She contacted a counselor at her undergraduate alma mater, the University of South Carolina, where she had switched from pre-med to a music major. Koci talked through her fears: Age. Debt. Doubt. 

That call gave her the encouragement she needed to sign up for the medical school entrance exam in 2013. She worked full-time as a technician at MUSC on the orthopedic trauma unit and spent every extra moment studying.

Melissa Koci/photos provided. 

“I hadn’t cracked a science book open in nearly 15 years,” Koci remembered. “I took it very seriously.”

Koci, now a rising fourth-year medical student, plans to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. She earned the Caroline B. Lown Endowed Scholarship this past academic year. Lown, who served in the MUSC president’s office for 26 years until her retirement in 1986, provided funding in her estate to establish the scholarship after her death in 2011.

Wanda Taylor, assistant dean for admissions in the College of Medicine, remembered Lown as the unofficial historian of the president’s office – someone who knew what every color signified at graduation. “This was before Google,” Taylor said. “She was the person you went to.”

“She was very knowledgeable but also very approachable,” Taylor added. “She was kind of like the force behind that office. She was behind the scenes but carried a big stick.”

Taylor said Koci’s achievements pay homage to Lown’s legacy, not only because of Koci’s academic qualifications but also her leadership among her peers, especially in student wellness initiatives. 

Soon after completing her undergraduate degree, Koci made her way to New Mexico, where she learned a new yoga style that helped her overcome panic attacks that had plagued her childhood. She trained to become a teacher and went on to help open several more yoga centers around the state before rising to a managerial role in Arizona.

Melissa Koci with her parents.

After 10 years, she wanted a change, and she wanted to see more of her family back in South Carolina.

“It was a two-year process making the decision,” she said. “I was coming from a business with women in the overwhelming majority of leadership positions, whereas in medicine sometimes there are no other women in the room.”

From what others have shared about Lown, Koci knows that her scholarship’s namesake stood out as a leader within her profession as well. “Even though I never met her, I still connect with her as the recipient of her generosity,” Koci said.

“It’s an honor, because I know someone recognized my efforts and thought I deserved it,” she added. “It does feel validating because, like many of my peers, you get that imposter syndrome, and this reaffirms that – yes, you belong here.”