EDINBURG, RGV – The start of something new for the Rio Grande Valley will begin in the fall as the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine inaugurates its first class of 55 students.
The new medical school will have a huge impact not only on students who will don their white coats for the first time next month, but on the Valley as a whole, officials said, at a media event on Monday.
“This is an incredible opportunity for students to be part of the solution for serving in an under-served area, but also an attempt to engage in preventive programs so that instead of being declared the sickest area in the country, people will be saying being as healthy as you can be is being in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Dr. Francisco Fernandez, founding dean of UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.
Fernandez said interest in joining the inaugural class was overwhelming. The number of students applying reached 2,784 applicants and that had to be whittled down to 55. The 55 comprises a diverse cohort of students: 44 percent Hispanic, 28 percent Caucasian, 15 percent Asian/Indian, 11 percent African American, and two percent American Indians.
“When we had the interviews we were full to the brim every single weekend and twice a week. There was great interest in the focus of the school. Remember, we are interested not just in the academic achievements but also interested in them as people, their experiences, what led them to the journey to find themselves here with us in this community. This is where you can make the biggest difference,” Dr. Fernandez said.
Fifty Texas residents and five out of state residents comprise the 55 accepted applicants entering the medical school, with 36 percent residents from the Rio Grande Valley. The first class consists of 28 females and 27 males.
The firs cohort includes 12 graduates from UTRGV and its legacy institutions: two from UTRGV, two from UT-Brownsville and eight from UT-Pan American. Fifteen are from Hidalgo County and five from Cameron County. Fernandez said they are set to become the region’s future doctors and medical community professionals.
The students are currently having orientation classes in the school’s new state-of-the-art medical building in Edinburg. Some of the students made themselves available for interviews at a media event on Tuesday.
“This is a huge opportunity, not only for us medical students, but for the Valley, for the residents of the Valley. It is something that will make a positive impact on this region,” Cory Fuentes of Mission, a medical student said. “I am personally very grateful and honored and humbled to be a part of this. It is really amazing.”
Like Fuentes, Ramiro Tovar, a medical student from Brownsville, is also one of the 55 students in the inaugural class.
“I have always wanted to be a doctor but it seemed so unreachable. Now we have a medical school. Now, it is no longer a dream. If you really put the effort in, you will be able to become a doctor, or whatever you wanted to be,” Tovar said.
Establishing a medical school in the Valley took a lot of effort. It had to move from a dream to a reality, officials said. It was just a dream when Dr. Leonel Vela became founding dean of the UT-Health Science Center-San Antonio’s Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen a decade and a half ago. The RAHC is now part of the UTRGV School of Medicine.
“I came back to the Rio Grande Valley 16 1/2 years ago. It (a medical school) was an incredible vision back then. I came here with the vision but I never knew how long it would take. This was the dream. I could not sleep last night just thinking, it is here, thank God it is here,” Vela said.
Vela said it is hard to put his emotions into words because he and others have been working towards the creation of a medical school for so long. “I came back home to be a part of this. I am humbled to be a part of this. To see it finally come to realization, what a proud moment, what a blessing for the entire Valley. It will charter a new course in the history of the Valley, to bring a new sense of hope to all the people of this wonderful Valley.”
State Rep. Terry Canales said the Valley’s legislative delegation had to convince their colleagues from other parts of Texas of the need for a medical school in the Valley He said some were dubious the region had the infrastructure to make it happen, such as creating enough residencies at local hospitals for medical students to hone their skills.
“This building and these students are the fruit of our labor. We stood on the shoulders of giants to make this happen, people who worked for decades to make this a reality,” Canales said.
Canales predicted the new state-of-the-art medical school will produce the most advanced physicians in the state’s medical community. He also predicted it will change the region’s landscape.
“There are not enough doctors in the Rio Grande Valley. This school will grow by leaps and bounds. It is beyond our grasp what this university and medical school will do to our community, long after you and I are gone,” Canales added.
Fernandez’s Welcoming Remarks
Dr. Francisco Fernandez, founding dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine, provided this statement to reporters in a media pack at Wednesday’s event:
“As we welcome our first cohort to the UTRGV School of Medicine, we are aware of how far we have come in establishing this medical school. But we are just as aware of how far the road ahead will lead us, and of how important that journey will be.
“Fifty-five students have officially committed themselves to the UTRGV School of Medicine, and that commitment is mutual. As part of a university family, as part of the Rio Grande Valley community, and as part of an ever-changing world of challenges and needs, we in turn commit our resources, our expertise and our dedication to helping our students succeed as the physicians of the future.
“Innovation, collaboration and communication are pivotal tools for building a healthier community, leading us toward One Community, One Mission, One Solution.”