Nick Cozzarelli was hit early, and hard, by COVID-19.
Cozzarelli, now in his third year at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, came down with the virus during the Spring 2020 semester. But so did family members. Some of those family members did not survive. Amid these tragedies were the normal challenges of a rigorous medical education – along with the added difficulties brought about by virtual learning, dictated by the spread of the pandemic.
But Cozzarelli is not your typical student – and so his response was not typical. Instead of pulling back, he became even more engaged with HMSOM life and his education. He was selected for the Peer Mentors group, helping the incoming first-year students become acclimated to the challenges of medical school. He took part in the admissions process for the 2021 cohort, conducting interviews and evaluations as part of his responsibilities as Co-President of the Student Government Association. And he was even the first student in line to volunteer at the Meadowlands “mega-site” run by the state and Hackensack Meridian Health to administer thousands of vaccinations.
“I’ve always had a desire to get involved, to give back,” said Cozzarelli recently. “Going through all these recent events, it gave me the opportunity to learn about myself and how I dealt with adversity – so that I can be there for somebody else in their time of need. I hope it’s going to make me a better doctor.”
“The leadership at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine consider ourselves to be so fortunate to have a foundation of students like Nick Cozzarelli,” said Bonita Stanton, M.D., the founding dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “Individuals like Nick inspire and guide all of us in the field of medicine to maximize our efforts to support our patients.”
THE GOLDEN TICKET
Cozzarelli is a Nutley native, who grew up just down the road from the site where Hoffman-La Roche had its U.S. headquarters for nearly a half century. Since it was such a major local employer, Cozzarelli had family members who went inside the security gates for work. But the boy who exhibited tremendous scientific curiosity had to watch from outside – and wonder what was going on within.
The closing of Hoffman-LaRoche shut doors for many, including hundreds of local jobs. But in the years since, the creation of the medical school, the addition of two Seton Hall University colleges, and the founding of the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation have created a new purpose for the historical site. So when Cozzarelli was reading the local newspaper in 2015 and saw the plans for the new medical school, his future was set on pursuing his dream, right in his hometown.
“I played as a kid in the park across the street, and I saw these huge buildings but could never go in. I was like Charlie from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” he said. “I figured, if I get in, it’s like my ‘golden ticket.'”
Cozzarelli went to Seton Hall with an eye toward this campus on Kingsland Street. He majored in biology, always keeping his focus on becoming a doctor, and doing so specifically through that school that was once off limits behind those gates. During his senior year of undergrad, he immediately applied, and was accepted as part of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine’s second cohort, starting in the summer of 2019.
He attributes his medical aspirations to a connection to others’ well-being – which was fostered during a Jesuit high school education at St. Peter’s Prep.
“They reflect on everything – everything!” he said recently, laughing. “And through my own reflection about what I wanted to do with my life, I realized being a physician is most aligned with who I am.”
That’s part of what prompted him to take part in the Peer Mentor program, as well as the Meadowlands “mega site” for COVID-19 vaccination. Having lost family members from the novel coronavirus convinced him that the common good meant everyone had to pull together. The quicker the mass vaccinations could be distributed, the more lives which could be saved, he figured. He ended up administering 230 doses himself, prepping hundreds more, and helping to train about 60 other students.
“That was one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences,” he said. “All these different teams, from the state to the National Guard to us, coming together had so much energy. We just all wanted this to end. We kept our eye on the ball and were motivated by the immense gratitude from the public.
“We still need to get as many people vaccinated, to beat back COVID-19 once and for all,” he added.
His future plans: to graduate in four years, and use his fourth year to pursue research and community work in preparation to apply residency, with the long-term goal of getting involved with addressing the quality of healthcare delivered at a systems levels.
TRADITION AND CULTURE
Another foundational fascination is his ancestral culture, and his religious faith. Cozzarelli minored in Catholic and Italian studies during his undergraduate years. In conversation he is a wealth of history, both his family’s and that of the greater cultural context. He travels frequently back to the ancestral homeland, with all the more incentive since his long-time girlfriend was born and raised in Sicily.
Every October – Italian-American Heritage and Culture Month – his Instagram account is filled with historical photos and accounts of the immigrant experience. Oftentimes, these are pictures of his own relatives on their own journey in pursuit of the American Dream.
Recently he also authored a piece in Winemaker Magazine which outlined his family’s generations-long tradition of viticulture, and how his brothers have joined his father’s pursuit of the perfect glass.
“Everything I accomplish in life is dedicated to all of my relatives who left Italy,” he writes in that piece. “The least I can do is continue the beautiful traditions that they passed down. Throughout all the hardships both sides of my family faced coming to this country, their strong love for their heritage was never lost.”
The plans are long-term, too. His grandfather compiled a more than 100-page account of the clan, called “Hey Cozz.” Cozzarelli said he hopes to complete it as just part of his life’s work, in addition to authoring pieces exploring the comparison between Italian and Italian-American culture.
“I dream of finishing what my grandfather started, as a tribute to all those who came before me – and those who will come after,” he said.