In 2011, nationally recognized and board-certified occupational medicine physician Dr. Melissa Tonn was appointed by then-governor Rick Perry to the Texas Woman’s University Board of Regents.

Through her leadership and service as a TWU Regent, Dr. Tonn learned about the Frontiers Program, which is designed to help students who have experienced foster care earn a college education. It would become a cause she would embrace as her own. “Right place, right time,” Dr. Tonn says. “Right thing to do.”

National studies show 62% of high school graduates enroll in college, and 63% of those complete their education. But among students who experienced foster care, only 33% will enroll and fewer than 10% will earn a college degree.

Take every opportunity you have to build the life you want. In foster care, so many decisions are not our own. But your education is yours.

Tomi Choyce, Business Administration ’25

Students who have experienced foster care face some unique challenges. They can’t rely on parents for help with applications, paying tuition, or support to deal with the demands of college, and frequent school changes due to movement through the system negatively impacts their ability to adequately prepare for college.

In 2015, Dr. Tonn made her first gift to the Frontiers Program, and she has become one of its most generous

supporters. Her gifts have provided the program with much needed funds for mentoring and counseling, as well as for helping with housing, food, financial aid, employment opportunities, career development, money management and social activities.

But getting involved in the Frontiers Program was not enough. She also set up the Tonn Emergency Fund, which provides financial assistance to students who have aged out of foster care and face catastrophic events that may disrupt their education.

The biggest impact TWU’s Frontiers Program has had on my university experience is helping me see the opportunities that I didn’t know existed.

Khyra Parks, MS Informatics ’24

Some of these students are “only one minor crisis away from dropping out,” says Dr. Tonn. “They lose their roommate or get sick or their car breaks down, and the first thing they’re going to have to do is drop out of school. That’s how the emergency fund was originally set up, for students who had some life event that they needed some bridge funding.” To date, Dr. Tonn’s support for the Frontiers Program and the Tonn Emergency Fund has exceeded $500,000.

Even that was not enough.

“I found out that a number of the students didn't go anywhere for Christmas,” says Dr. Tonn. “They were staying on campus, so I invited the students to come over for Christmas Eve. We had dinner one or two years at my house, one year at a restaurant in Snider Plaza, and we drove around and looked at the Christmas lights.”

Right thing to do, indeed.

Dr. Tonn is president and chief medical officer of OccMD, LLC, a member of the American and Texas Medical Associations and the Dallas County Medical Society, and past president of the American Academy of Disability Evaluating Physicians. She is a past president of the Texas College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a fellow of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and a member of the Parkland Foundation Board.

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