Graduation marks many milestones for graduates and families – the completion of a rigorous program of study, the start of a new career, perhaps even the first in the family to graduate.
This year’s College of Pharmacy commencement exercise marks another milestone –a community-shared event. The 2013 exercises marked the tenth anniversary of the first graduates of a program designed to address a critical shortage of health care providers in far West Texas – the El Paso Cooperative Pharmacy Program. The program also celebrated as its 100th graduate completed study.In Spring 2003, the first class of the Cooperative Pharmacy Program concluded their study. Eleven El Paso residents began their pharmacy education in Fall 1999, through a program that saw two universities – The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at El Paso – combine energies to address the West Texas region’s acute shortage of health care personnel including pharmacists. One goal of the program was to introduce pharmacy as a career choice to highly qualified El Paso area students. The two-university partnership enabled qualifying students an opportunity to complete a majority of their education in El Paso, with only two years of the six-year degree program completed in Austin. The goal was for these newly educated pharmacists to return to the region to serve their hometown communities. Including this year’s class, a total of 107 students have completed the program.
Dr. José Rivera, assistant dean for the El Paso Cooperative Program, has directed the program in El Paso since January 2001. He has attended each graduation and said that, as the program graduated its 100th student in the May 2013 commencement exercises, it has absolutely made an impact on the community’s health provider needs.
"Our students are from our community," he said. "Since 2003, more than 75 percent are practicing in the El Paso region. We also graduate culturally and linguistically-capable pharmacists to serve our region and the rest of the country."
Dr. Amanda Loya, a member of the 2003 graduating class, joined Rivera in attending this year’s graduation program. After completing the program herself, she joined the El Paso faculty and has helped direct some of the studies of most of the students who have followed her.
"It has been an honor to be a part of the UTEP/UT Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program, first as a pharmacy student and now as a faculty member," she said. "This program allowed me to obtain a world-class pharmacy education in my hometown where I could work and learn alongside providers, patients, and colleagues who shared with me the same commitment and dedication to this community.
"As a faculty member, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have mentored and guided pharmacy students and residents in order to prepare innovative and competent pharmacy clinicians and leaders who can practice in diverse populations and settings," she continued. "As I reflect back on the last 10 years, I am so proud of the program and what it has been able to accomplish. The program’s mission to advance the practice of pharmacy on the U.S.-Mexico border has become a reality due to the hard work and dedication from faculty, staff, students and administration."
The newest class of pharmacy graduates includes Michael Elias, Clarissa Enriquez, Jessica Gomez, Grecia Heredia, Catherine Ho, Alejandra Juarez, Julian McCreary, Stephanie Ramirez, Francisco Roman, Varun Sharma, Daniel Stubbemann, and Oscar Tapia.
For the record, Catherine Ho is the official 100th graduate of the program. She comes from a pharmacy family. Her mother, Dr. Kim Ho, a pharmacist who is also the program’s hospital coordinator, will hood Catherine during the graduation service. In the audience, proudly cheering them on will be her dad, Dr. Hoi Ho, a preceptor for the program and a physician and educator with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso.
Most of this year’s graduates said they learned about the program through family members, friends, and classmates. At least one heard about it through former graduates, and Clarissa Enriquez didn’t become acquainted with the program until she met the students in the El Paso Cooperative Program as a first-year pharmacy student.
"It was always my goal to return to El Paso, and having rotations in El Paso would be a great way to start networking and learn more about working with the community," Enriquez said. She approached college administrators and officially transferred into the cooperative program. This fall she begins a position as a staff pharmacist at an El Paso area hospital. After she gains experience, she said she would like to serve as a preceptor and hopefully, some day, as a clinical associate professor.
Graduates from the Class of 2013 had the opportunity to reflect on their experiences as pharmacy students training in El Paso.
"The pinnacle moment of my academic career was the first time I explained the importance of taking HIV medications to a patient and the methods of resistance," said Grecia Heredia. "After becoming resistant to several regimens, he (the patient) was really concerned and inconvenienced by the fact that he had to take several pills many times a day. I was able to explain how the virus evolves and gets resistant. The look of dawning comprehension (on the patient’s face) will forever remind me why I love this profession so much. Everything I have learned and will continue learning will help me educate and empower patients to take charge of their lives and improve their health."
Francisco Roman described his most memorable moment as a student when he said he made a life-saving intervention while on rounds with Dr. Loya. "Her mentorship style taught me how to methodically assess patient-specific problems and to address them in an effective and evidence-based way."
This year’s graduates will be moving on to a variety of pharmacy practice settings and opportunities. Five members of this class will be completing pharmacy practice residencies, two of which will complete residency training in El Paso. "My plans after graduation include completing a residency (PGY1) at Centro De Salud Familiar La Fe (in El Paso) and giving back to the community that I know and love," said Heredia. Oscar Tapia also has his sights set on a residency program at the local Veterans’ affairs clinic with the possibility of a government job afterwards. He is interested in expanding his education and skills in the area of ambulatory care. Other students in this class plan to remain in El Paso and practice in community or hospital pharmacy settings in efforts to continue the Cooperative Pharmacy Program’s mission to serve the El Paso community.