The Foster School of Medicine provided the opportunity, and over the course of four long and challenging years, 89 new physicians seized it to earn their Medical Doctorate degrees.
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso celebrated the commencement of the medical school’s class of 2022 Thursday night at the Abraham Chavez Theatre. Every member of the class has been matched to a residency program, with 18 staying to train in the Borderplex region. This will benefit El Pasoans’ access to quality health care, because residents are more likely to stay and practice where they complete their training.
Of the 18 residents staying locally, 15 will complete residency training at TTUHSC El Paso, including El Pasoan Miguel Mena, who will begin an emergency medicine residency.
“I still remember the first day of medical school like it was yesterday, and I never knew how fast it would go by,” said Mena, who received the outstanding student award in emergency medicine. “In just a couple of weeks, I’ve gone from ‘hey Miguel,’ to being called ‘Dr. Mena.’ It makes you realize all these years of hard work have paid off. We celebrate like it’s the end, but honestly, it’s the beginning of something special.”
With a path of endless potential ahead of them, it was only natural for Thursday night to become a time of reflection for the graduates. The Foster School of Medicine provided the opening they needed to pursue their dreams.
“I never really pictured myself as a medical student when I was at Maxine L. Silva Health Magnet High School, but there was something calling to me as I looked across the street at the TTUHSC El Paso campus,” said Mena, who graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso before medical school.
For many El Paso natives, the perseverance required for medical school was made easier by attending the Foster School of Medicine, surrounded by a support system of family and friends. That was a godsend for El Pasoan and first-generation graduate Valeria Varela when she was in the process of choosing a medical school. She was conflicted as she was preparing to leave El Paso, but it was at a delicate time when she needed her family, and they needed her.
“I was making a big change, planning to go to medical school, at a time when my family was facing difficult challenges. An adviser told me my priority was medical school, not family, but I couldn’t grasp that,” Varela said. “It was around that time I found out I had been selected to receive a scholarship to the Foster School of Medicine. It was such a relief – I was able to be close to family and make them and medical school both a priority.”
Four years later, Varela is prepared to leave El Paso for the first time after matching with Phoenix Children’s Hospital for her pediatric residency. The excitement at home has been building over the last few weeks, with emotional parents glowing at the sight of the letters “M.D.” printed next to their daughter’s name. It was hard for her family to keep a dry eye Thursday night.
“I held off on letting my parents see me in my cap and gown until tonight because I knew it was going to be a special moment along with being introduced as ‘doctor’ when I walked across the stage. Those are moments I will cherish forever,” Varela said. “I’ve often thought about my journey these past few years, including the challenges my family and I have faced. I’m so grateful for their support and love because thanks to them I’ve accomplished this goal. I know they can’t follow me to Phoenix, but every one of them will be with me in my heart.”
Varela and her classmates will now have the chance to “foster the well-being of humankind,” as they pledged during the class oath. The class of 2022 was in the middle of medical school when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The health care profession is much different than what they envisioned when they embarked on this journey. However, they are well prepared and vital to combating the pandemic.
The Foster School of Medicine has evolved as a leader in clinically focused education thanks to hands-on clinical experience within the first year of the curriculum, an unconventional approach among most U.S. medical schools. The curriculum includes a focus on culturally competent community service, and it was one of the first medical schools in the U.S. to integrate a medical Spanish requirement.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that in just over 10 years, Hispanics will account for 25% of the population. However, less than 6% of physicians in the U.S. speak Spanish and identify as Hispanic or Latino. Research shows that patients with limited English proficiency greatly benefit from bilingual health care providers and are more likely to understand diagnosis and treatment and adhere to medication. This reinforces the need for bilingual doctors in El Paso and beyond.
Since opening in 2009, the school has educated 794 physicians. In that time, it has reduced the physician shortage in the Borderplex area. Thirteen years ago, the number of direct care physicians per 100,000 people was 75% less than the national average. It has been reduced to 60% in just over 10 years.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity we have here in El Paso,” said Varela, who plans to return to El Paso to practice medicine. “I wanted to express how grateful I am for Mr. Paul L. Foster, who not only helped establish the school but was also my scholarship donor, and to all the donors who have contributed to our institution’s growth; everyone has made a difference for El Paso. They did it by giving people like me the chance to go to medical school and fulfill my dreams. None of us could have done it without that collection of givers.”