Donna Sweet's career acknowledged with honorary doctorate
December 18, 2015
By Brian Whepley
Dr. Donna Sweet, professor at KU School of Medicine-Wichita, believes that treating and advocating for AIDS patients is just part of her job, something she should be doing as a doctor.
Others beg to differ about the importance of her work, including her alma mater, Wichita State University. On Dec. 13, Sweet received the first honorary doctorate that WSU has given in 27 years. She also received the university's President's Medal and delivered the fall commencement address.
"It is not overstating the matter to say that Dr. Sweet has changed the world with her scholarship and her heart," WSU President John Bardo said in announcing the honors. "Her outstanding achievements and visionary leadership in the battle against AIDS make her an excellent recipient of this award."
Sweet has earned many accolades but said she is always astonished and overwhelmed when they come. "Since it's what I think of as my job, it comes as a surprise that people single me out. To think that somebody believes that I have changed the world is wonderful," she said. "Helping the sicker and poorer among us, that's what I think we should all do."
Still, the honor from WSU stands out for Sweet, who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology there. She attended on a Gore Scholarship, a full ride that made an immense difference. Sweet grew up poor near Towanda, Kansas.
"I probably would have managed to find a way to go to college, but I wouldn't have been able to be a traditional student," she said. "I credit WSU for a solid education, my ability to get into medical school, and a rewarding profession. It's always best to be recognized by your home base."
The last honorary degree WSU granted was in 1988 to Edwin A. Ulrich, namesake of the Ulrich Museum of Art. Recently, the Board of Regents opened the way for state schools to again award honorary degrees.
Selecting Sweet was a "no-brainer," said Tony Vizzini, WSU provost and senior vice president. "She's a trailblazer. ... We say that Shockers know the right thing to do and do the right thing, and when you look at her career she exemplifies that."
After earning her masters in 1972, Sweet decided to go to medical school in 1976 and was in one of the early classes of students on the then-new KU School of Medicine-Wichita campus.
"It prepared me well. We were young as an institution. The school and residents were given a lot of independence. There was a lot of self-study and self-direction and that leads people to grow. It certainly did for me," she said. "At KU I have been blessed with wonderful deans and chairs of medicine. They have allowed me the time to do the things I have done, which is not always traditional medical faculty stuff."
In the week before the WSU ceremony, two of the many things on Sweet's schedule illustrated ways she makes a difference. One was a trip to New York to seek grant funds from a big pharmaceutical company. Another, at a Wichita church on Saturday, was the annual Christmas to Remember dinner she and her staff first began putting on for patients 20 years ago. Back then, the stigma of AIDS was so strong that most patients came without family, because they had been shunned. Now, many more family members participate in this traditional Christmas dinner.
"I think I did have an impact on the state and nationally trying to get everyone to understand what the disease was and was not. My vision was to have it treated for what it was, an illness, and not treat people as lepers. The educational efforts have made a difference. People were treated better as a result of what the community learned."KU School of Medicine-Wichita