Students in The University of Texas at El Paso’s first graduating class from the School of Pharmacy take the oath of a pharmacist during the Pharmacy hooding ceremony May 13, 2021. UTEP will award its first Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degrees to 40 graduates at the University’s Spring 2021 Commencement ceremony May 15, 2021, at Sun Bowl Stadium. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications
As a pharmacy technician at Walgreens pharmacy, Alejandro Perez took great satisfaction in helping people with limited resources obtain their medications for free or at a very low cost.
Perez, a student at The University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Pharmacy, recalled how he helped a customer save hundreds of dollars on her insulin prescription by signing her up for a discount prescription program.
“When customers tell me that they don’t have enough money for their medicine, I have a lot of resources that the School of Pharmacy has provided me with in terms of showing them where they can sign up online or where they can go in the community to get help paying for their prescriptions.”
Students in UTEP’s Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) program learn about free or discounted prescription drug programs that are available through pharmaceutical companies, nonprofit groups, or state governments.
“UTEP’s pharmacy program exposes you to so much more than just pharmacology,” said Perez, a first-generation college student. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences from the University in 2017. “We learn so much about the culture and what it’s like to be a patient and that’s important if you’re providing health care.”
In August 2017, Perez was among the first cohort of students to enter the new UTEP School of Pharmacy two years after The University of Texas System Board of Regents approved the creation of the school.
Perez’s much-anticipated journey to becoming a pharmacist will culminate Saturday, May 15, 2021, when he and 39 members of the School of Pharmacy’s inaugural class walk across the stage at Sun Bowl Stadium to receive their Pharm.D. degrees. The school commemorated this significant milestone in UTEP’s history with the hooding ceremony of the first Pharm.D. class Thursday, May 13, 2021.
“We are very proud of our first class of pharmacy school graduates,” said José O. Rivera, Pharm.D., the school’s founding dean. “Starting a new pharmacy program was not an easy task. Our students had to overcome many obstacles, especially the COVID-19 pandemic during their last year in the program to get to where they are today. Looking back, I am overwhelmed by everything our students, faculty and staff have accomplished over the last four years. We look forward to our next major milestone, which is to become fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education this summer.”
An IDEAL Curriculum
UTEP’s four-year Pharm.D. program was designed to address the shortage of pharmacists in the Paso del Norte region and increase the number of Hispanics in the pharmacy profession.
Ninety percent of the program’s 40 graduates will remain in El Paso to practice professionally and elevate the quality of pharmacy care in the region. Ten percent of graduates will continue their education in residency programs throughout the United States.
Perez, who is one of 37 graduates from El Paso, said he plans to remain in the city after graduation.
“I want to stay in my hometown and I want to help my people,” said Perez, who has accepted a job offer from Albertson’s pharmacy. “Being in a border city, I’ve met a lot of people who were just like me growing up. We did not have a lot of money or health insurance so we rarely went to the doctor. Staying here to practice is something that I can do to give back to my community.”
The school’s curriculum, called IDEAL — Innovation, Diversity, Engagement, Access and Leadership — delivers a unique educational experience for community pharmacists who are eager to serve diverse patient populations. While the program emphasizes primary care and prevention, it also promotes Spanish proficiency and cultural sensitivity to prepare pharmacists to serve the needs of communities in the U.S.-Mexican border and South Texas regions.
“Even though Spanish is my first language, there were many medical terms that I was not familiar with,” said Sandra Saenz, whose Pharm.D. degree will be her second degree from UTEP. “I am now more confident when I talk in Spanish to patients and ask them about their medications and if they’re having any side effects.”
Pharmacy Practice Beyond Borders
Although the program’s focus is on Hispanic culture, Rivera said the Pharm.D. program’s curriculum also prepares graduates to practice beyond the border. That is why the school requires students to participate in short-term study abroad or study away experiences to expose them to different populations outside the region.
“You need to understand the community where you are going to practice, otherwise, you’re going to be limited in terms of the impact that you’re going to have,” Rivera explained. “While we do emphasize the Hispanic culture, we also teach in a broader sense that wherever these graduates go to practice, they have to embrace the community they are in so they can understand the needs of the population they’re going to serve.”
Students have traveled to Ireland; Nashville, Tennessee; Presidio, Texas; Wichita, Kansas; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Washington, D.C.
Perez volunteered at a health clinic in Presidio. Saenz traveled to the University of Kansas’ School of Pharmacy in Wichita.
“They have a very large Native American community in Wichita,” Saenz said. “This trip opened my eyes to the different communities and cultures that are outside of El Paso. Although I am planning to stay here, as a practitioner I should always be prepared to help someone who comes here from outside the community and respect their beliefs and culture.”
At home, students engage in community service to understand the needs of local residents. In addition to studying for classes and raising his 4-year-old daughter, Perez found time to volunteer at different flu clinics and at UTEP’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic. He said volunteering in the community has boosted his confidence in his ability to deliver services to his future patients.
Saenz gave birth to her first child during her first semester in the Pharm.D. program. Her second child was born during the fall 2020 semester. She stayed in the program because she was determined to graduate with the school’s 2021 class.
“Graduation feels surreal to me,” said Saenz, who was set to attend another pharmacy school, but changed her mind when UTEP’s School of Pharmacy opened. “I’m proud to set an example for the pharmacy graduates that come after us. I’d like to come back as a preceptor and help other students and guide them through the program.”
Author: Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications