WESLACO, Texas – The CEO of Valley Grande Institute for Academic Studies says an apprenticeship program for allied healthcare professionals approved by the Department of Labor led to a new partnership with UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

Anabell C. Cardona is president and CEO of Valley Grande Institute. She gave an exclusive interview to the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service about both the apprenticeship program and the UTRGV collaboration. 

“It was thanks Commissioner Julian Alvarez that launched we launched the apprenticeship program. It allows to bring much-needed entry level support staff into the healthcare system in the Rio Grande Valley. And the Department of Labor was very, very receptive,” Cardona said.

Alvarez was a Texas Workforce commissioner at the time. He has subsequently moved into the private sector. Cardona, working through the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, organized a reception to honor Alvarez. It was held at the McAllen Convention Center last December. Cardona is a board member of the Partnership.

“That apprenticeship program led to Valley Grande Institute signing an agreement with UTRGV School of Medicine. So we’re going to be the workforce pipeline for the 31 clinics in the Rio Grande Valley, at the same time creating new programs to address some of the workforce needs throughout the Valley. I am so proud of this,” Cardona said.

Cardona said there was one “amazing week” last December when she learned the Department of Labor had approved the allied healthcare apprenticeship program and she signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UTRGV SOM.

“We have joined forces with the School of Medicine to address the needs of the region: addressing poverty, health care, workforce development, the nursing shortage, mental health. Collectively, we’re going to address these needs.”

The MOU between the medical school and VGI was signed at the VGI Campus in Weslaco. UTRGV President Guy Bailey said the MOU aims to strengthen the pipeline between the two institutions in training allied health professionals. 

“The mission of UTRGV is to serve the region,” Bailey said. “With the School of Medicine’s support, VGI allied health students can continue their medical training to best contribute to that mission.”

Bailey said the program will prepare students to be part of healthcare teams by exposing them to clinical procedures under the direct supervision of UTRGV faculty or staff, including UT Health RGV clinical nurse educators and staff registered nurses. 

Their experiences, he said, will include patient care, use of medical equipment, crisis management and blood draws, among others. While working under supervision at UT Health clinical sites, they can be paid a stipend while gaining clinical experience.

Then-Commissioner Alvarez attended the MOU signing, addressing the dignitaries and about 100 students gathered at the site. Alvarez pointed out that attracting students to the healthcare profession is a statewide need. 

“We want students to graduate and be employed,” Alvarez said. “Our goal is to make sure every Texan has opportunities to succeed.” 

Alvarez said pathway programs like this one between VGI and UTRGV create critical opportunities, as they allow credits and certifications to articulate into four-year degrees. 

“This is a regional victory for all of us,” Alvarez said. 

Jewel Lynn Leal is a student from Weslaco who started the VGI medical assistant certification program last September. Leal said she is excited about the paid clinical experience, and looks forward to this new opportunity to expand her education. 

“I’m thinking of continuing into getting an RN – maybe further,” said Leal, 19. “I feel like this is going to be a great steppingstone. They’re offering us a lot. I recently had a daughter, so I want her to see me grow as a person. And, in case there’s anything she needs, I can know how help her.”

Cardona said the programs offered at VGI ­can be completed in less than a year. She said her group’s programs support the regional need for medical professionals like medical assistants, insurance coders, and phlebotomy and radiology technicians. 

“Currently, clinics in the Rio Grande Valley have more doctors than vocational nurses and other allied health professionals – who are critical members of care teams,” Cardona said. “Our nursing and allied health students will provide the healthcare workforce for our region’s hospitals and UT Health RGV’s 31 clinical sites.”

VGI is helping develop that talent pipeline by creating opportunities for students to continue their education, the CEO explained.

“UTRGV degrees like the Bachelor of Science in Nursing can help VGI students prepare at a high level of competency for a culturally diverse healthcare career,” Cardona added.

Dr. Michael B. Hocker is senior vice president of UT Health RGV and dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine. Hocker said the UTRGV SOM-VGI partnership serves to grow the supply of medical professionals needed in the region’s clinics. 

“We’re excited to partner in our efforts to improve access to care in the Valley by offering increased educational opportunities for individuals interested in being a part of an ever-evolving healthcare field,” Hocker said. “When I look at the students here today, I see our future. I see our future workforce, and our team.” 

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the second in a two-part series on Valley Grande Institute for Academic Studies. Click here to read Part One.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows the signing of an MOU by Anabell C. Cardona, president and CEO of Valley Grande Institute for Academic Studies, Guy Bailey, president of UT-Rio Grande Valley, and Dr. Michael B. Hocker, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine. The MOU aims to to strengthen the pipeline between the two institutions in training allied health professionals. (Photo credit: UTRGV/David Pike)

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