Spring 2017

Son of Immigrants Still Paying It Forward

Grateful for his own financial aid, alumnus Vangel Zissi established scholarship fund.

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From left, Vangel Zissi, Jacqueline Farah, D16, the first recipient of the Zissi scholarship, and Barbara Zissi. Photo: Matthew Healey

When it came to advocating for her children, Anastasia Zissi was a strong motivator. She and her husband, Demetre, arrived in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1920, among the city’s first wave of Albanian immigrants. Life was difficult, and they worked hard to support their two sons and two daughters. Demetre was a fruit salesman, and Anastasia endured deplorable conditions working in the textile mills, both determined to give their children lives of promise.

“I learned the importance of hard work and perseverance from my mother,” said Vangel Zissi, D62, DG67, A02P. “She was rock solid and inspirational. She gave us the American Dream.”

Although she had little formal schooling, Anastasia saw education as the path to her children’s success. Financial aid and the work ethic learned from his mother got Zissi through the predental program at the University of New Hampshire and Tufts School of Dental Medicine.

“It’s because of my mother that I have accomplished all that I have,” said Zissi, a clinical professor of endodontics emeritus. “Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see her dream for me come to fruition.” To honor his mother’s memory and the sacrifices she made for her family, Zissi and his wife, Barbara, have established the Dr. Vangel and Mrs. Barbara Zissi Endowed Scholarship Fund so that Tufts dental students can pursue their careers without taking on onerous debt. Their gift was doubled through Tufts’ Financial Aid Initiative.

The first Zissi Scholar, Jacqueline Farah, D16, who’s in a general practice residency at Montefiore Hospital in New York, has a lot in common with her benefactor. She is the daughter of immigrants from Jordan whose parents also worked hard to support their five children and stressed the importance of education. “I hope one day I will be able to help other students achieve their goal, just as you have helped me,” Farah wrote in a thank-you letter to the couple.

Debt Anxiety

Zissi knows full well the burden of student debt. He started dental school in 1958, still carrying loans from his undergraduate years at UNH. He roomed with three other dental students to cut down on expenses. As a work-study student, he prepared formulas for Tufts’ research labs; he also pulled night shifts as a barback at a local tavern. Summers were spent cubing concrete blocks for a cement company, working on highway construction crews and pulling cattle hides at a tannery, dipping them in acid baths to clean them.

“The worry was always there about how I would make my next tuition payment,” he said. “Dental school was difficult enough, but thinking about the debt was sometimes overwhelming. But you did what you had to do. With financial aid and hard work, I got it done.”

After earning his D.M.D, Zissi served in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy. He then worked in a general practice for a year in Hanover, New Hampshire, before returning to the School of Dental Medicine to help Arthur Pearson, D39, chair of the predoctoral endodontics program, develop a postgraduate program in the specialty. He was one of its first two graduates.

Zissi wanted to stay in Boston, so when he was invited to join the practice Limited to Endodontics, he jumped at the chance. “My partners were the best of the best,” Zissi said. “Cyril Gaum, Al Krakow and Joel Dunsky made me a better endodontist, but more importantly they helped me understand that everyone can make a difference. They led by example with their involvement in organized dentistry, dental education and philanthropy.” Zissi joined the Dental M Club, contributing annually to the Tufts Dental Fund and signed on to school’s clinical teaching staff.

Always the Mentor

He’s been involved with the university for more than 50 years now, and Barbara Zissi, his wife of 40 years, calls Tufts “my second family.” Zissi is a former director of continuing education at the dental school and serves as a special adviser to Dean Huw Thomas. He has been the alumni editor of Tufts Dental Medicine magazine since 1996.

But it is his work with students—both undergraduates and the dental students he still mentors in the endodontics clinic two days a week—that clearly bring joy and meaning to his life. They call him Doctor Z. He smiles more broadly when he talks about them: “They amaze me with their inquisitiveness and their knowledge. They’re exciting to be around.”

When Zissi isn’t at the dental school, he can usually be found cheering on the Tufts men’s lacrosse team. When the team marched through its 2016 season en route to its third consecutive NCAA Division III Championship match, Zissi was right with them—as he has been for nearly two decades, starting when his son, Jonathan, A02, now a high school lacrosse coach in California, played for the Jumbos.

He’s the team’s unofficial dentist, making sure players receive top care. For many of the laxmen, he’s also a surrogate dad. Their familiar refrain: “Ask Doctor Z; he’ll fix it.”

“Helping others is what it’s all about,” he said. “There’s nothing like lending a helping hand and steering someone in the right direction.”

And he’s definitely not shy in urging other dental school alums to think about creating their own scholarships: “What do Van Zissi, an Albanian kid from New Hampshire, and you have in common? The ability to make a difference.”

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