Med/Ed milestone: First student accepted at Allied Health
Although the Rio Grande Valley counties have been medically underserved historically, high school and college students can make their dreams of going into medical and health careers come true. Like Juan Gonzalez, who is a biology major with a 3.9 GPA at The University of Texas Pan American, they can take advantage of the health-career-motivating program Med/Ed.
Gonzalez, a 1997 Mercedes High School graduate, is the first Med/Ed member to make his mark in allied health. He’s been accepted to the physical therapy degree program at the School of Allied Health Sciences. He transferred to UTHSC with three years of coursework at U.T. Pan Am. In his first year, he’ll finish his bachelor’s degree and proceed to his master’s degree.
"Juan is quiet, reserved and one of the most focused kids; he knew what he wanted when he was a junior in high school," said Yvonne May-Kautsch, Med/Ed’s program coordinator. "He comes from a low socioeconomic background and will be the first in his family to go this far in higher education. He wanted to set the example for his younger sister and cousins."
The soft-spoken Mercedes man joined the program, coordinated by the McAllen office of Dr. Mario Ramirez, vice president for South Texas/Border Initiatives, during his senior year in high school. It was the Med/Ed program’s inaugural year.
"My goal was to become a sports trainer. But my high school trainer convinced me physical therapy was a better career choice," said the 21-year-old Gonzalez. "He told me I would be able to help a wider range of people and do more. It wouldn’t be as limited."
All the honor students, said Gonzalez, were asked if they’d be interested in going into the medical field. So he attended the orientation and thought Med/Ed could be a great influence. But his decision also was based on a summer work experience.
"When I was 13 years old, my father went with the migrant workers and he took my uncle and me to ‘La Espiga,’ shucking corn in the fields," said Gonzalez, who has been working as a physical therapy technician for the past two years. "I did it for one summer. When I came back, I said I was never going back there; I was going to school."
Designed to help students prepare for careers in health care, the Med/Ed Program, part of the South Texas/Border Region Health Education Initiative, began enrolling applicants in 1996. Med/Ed mixes mentoring with academic preparation and community or volunteer service.
Begun in McAllen, Med/Ed soon encompassed eight other school districts in the upper Rio Grande Valley. These included districts in Mercedes, Roma, Edinburg and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, all areas in need of health professionals. Today, the program takes its Med/Ed message to 25 Valley schools.
The need for medical and health professionals in the Valley is great. While the proportion of students applying to medical schools varies widely in Texas, percentages plummet in some of the Valley’s counties. From the start, Med/Ed’s goal—to draw South Texas teens into medicine and health—has worked. When a call for candidates went out in 1996, 200 applicants in four weeks put in for the popular program, which this past May had 438 active high school and 200 college members.
"We were overwhelmed," Ramirez commented in a 1996 interview for The News. "We mailed out 1,400 letters to students who were randomly selected from the top 10 percent in academic standing to explain about the program, and we received 300 to 350 calls about applications by the end of July ."
The response in the Valley, May-Kautsch said, signaled coordinators then that there was genuine interest in guidance and education. There still is. She says the High School for the Health Professions in Mercedes, a magnet school with students from the Valley, does its part in promoting health career education. However, Med/Ed is designed primarily for students who attend their home high schools and want to receive guidance toward health careers.
"I opted not to go to Med High because I wanted to play sports," said Gonzalez, who had perfect school attendance from grades two through 12.
Along with Med/Ed, this future physical therapist credits his parents with keeping him focused.
"My parents didn’t finish school but they were a strong influence on me," said Gonzalez, whose father earned a General Education Diploma. "My father is a Head Start teacher with the Texas Migrant Council and I see how he struggles to make ends meet. He leaves every summer with the migrant workers because he can’t afford to take a summer off and stay home. He encourages me to go as far as possible with my education."
Gonzalez can go far, May-Kautsch said. As one of the first Med/Ed participants, she asked him to mentor several sophomore students at his former high school.
"I knew he’d be a good mentor because he was motivated and he could pass on to the younger students how to achieve, how to plan and achieve goals, his approach to studying and how to supplement the education he was getting," said May-Kautsch. "He knew about the school of hard knocks — hard manual labor."