Although they came to their shared appreciation for the opportunities of higher education from very different paths, husbands Michael and Peter Wetzel are equally committed to ensuring that those opportunities are broadly available for future generations. The couple has stepped forward with a seven-figure estate commitment to support undergraduates with financial need in the Eberly College of Science.
When their bequest is realized, the Michael and Peter Wetzel Completion of Dreams Scholarship will enable the college to distribute many full-tuition scholarship packages to students on an annual basis. With the average loan debt for graduating students in Eberly currently standing at $45,872, the endowment and the resources it generates in perpetuity will allow the Eberly College of Science to target support where it is most urgently needed.
“Michael and Peter have shown tremendous forethought in structuring their gift,” said Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “Unrestricted scholarships give us the flexibility to identify academically talented students with financial need from every major in the college and with a wide range of personal circumstances. The Wetzels’ gift — and the generosity that animated it — will touch many lives in the years ahead, and it will leave behind a powerful philanthropic legacy that opens doors to academic success far into the future.”
As the couple recently set about updating their will for the first time in 20 years, Michael and Peter deliberated carefully about their philanthropic priorities. These included fighting climate change, advancing racial justice and protecting animal rights and the environment.
“In the end, we realized that access to higher education would empower future generations to set their own agenda and priorities for the future of their communities,” said Michael. “We decided to establish a scholarship at Penn State because my experience at the University was so important to my own life and career.”
Michael, a New Jersey native who majored in pre-medicine in the Eberly College of Science at Penn State’s University Park campus and graduated in 1985, was raised by two parents who did not attend college. Still, they treated higher education for him and his older brothers as an inevitability. During Michael’s first year at Penn State, his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but his reassurance to his son was emphatic: “The money is there.” With that promise, Michael knew that his father’s passing would not stop his progress toward a career in medicine.
He did just that, earning his medical degree from the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in 1989. Michael spent 19 years as a practicing physician, then transitioned to insurance medicine. Today, he serves as chief medical director at Equitable, a financial services company, helping insurance underwriters to assess the mortality risk of applicants.
“I have an abiding gratitude towards my father,” Michael said. “At a time when he was reckoning with a terrible diagnosis and illness, he took steps to ensure that I would be taken care of. I’ve always aspired to emulate his spirit of kindness.”
Peter’s educational aspirations, by contrast, never quite came to fruition, he said. He was adopted by older parents from rural Minnesota without college degrees or interest in higher education. Nonetheless, his father started a business, became a millionaire, then sold it and retired in his mid-50s. Peter, who was consistently on the honor roll and selected for gifted programs, earned his GED at the age of 16 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota at the age of 17.
Shortly afterward, however, his education got derailed by his parents’ divorce and their rescinding of financial support. Without that help, Peter had no option but to withdraw, he said.
“It took my sister 12 years to earn her degree, paying her own way while she supported herself,” said Peter. “She was the first in my family to get a degree. I like to joke that Michael has enough degrees for both of us, but of course I do have regrets that I didn’t go back to school when I earned enough to make it happen.”
Peter went on to built a successful career in retail management, centered primarily in the high-end luggage industry.
Since meeting in Minneapolis in 1991, the couple has been together for more than 30 years. They officially married in 2016, and they now live in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Although Michael’s visits to State College have become less frequent — it’s been 13 years since his last trip to University Park in 2009 — Michael recalls his time at Penn State fondly.
“I was a Lion Ambassador and active in programming in the College of Science, and of course I remember a lot of studying,” he said. “But my fondest memories are of the tailgates, the parties, and spending time with friends at a really formative age. That stays with you.”
Now, Michael hopes their gift will empower students who might otherwise have their dreams thwarted by financial hardship to earn their degrees. “I realize how fortunate I am, and I’d like young people, regardless of financial background, to have a shot at pursuing their dreams,” he said.
With their estate commitment, Michael and Peter qualified to become members of the Atherton Society, which honors donors who establish a planned gift. The couple has previously been consistent and longtime donors to the Future Fund and Completion of Dreams Fund in the Eberly College of Science.
Support for scholarships will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hard-working students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.