TAMPA — Student Paolette Pimentel has always dreamed of becoming a physician assistant. As a junior at the University of South Florida, she knows her pathway will contain many challenges. One of them: finding some help to pay her way through USF.
But Pimentel, 19, got the help that she needed from the Tampa Bay Latin American Medical Society, a philanthropic society of Hispanic physicians that supports the community and helps the next generation of Latino health care providers secure their futures.
“The mission has grown a lot, because initially we organized trips to different countries in Latin America to make contacts with doctors, give conferences and donate books,” said Dr. Celia López-McCormack, president of the nonprofit organization.
The group was founded in 1980 as an initiative of Dr. Hernan León and a group of Hispanic physicians to help and guide their Latino colleagues.
Four decades later, the group has become stronger as an organization, providing financial aid to more than 80 Latino students through its support of the USF Latino Scholarship and the Morsani College of Medicine Latino Scholarship. They also have established a $100,000 endowed scholarship at USF to help Latino students pay for books and other school supplies.
Jose Valiente, chairperson of the USF Foundation, which coordinates several scholarship programs, praised the efforts of the Tampa Bay Latin American Medical Society. The group has given out $225,000 in scholarships since 1995, according to Valiente. The Tampa Bay Latin American Society Endowed Scholarship pays $2,000 per semester toward a student’s tuition, books and fees.
“They have contributed a lot to the studies of young people of Hispanic origin,” said Valiente, a 1973 USF accounting graduate who came from a low-income household and was the first in his family to attend college.
“It’s a very important help for the dreams of these students,” said Valiente.
While the U.S. Latino population continues to grow, the number of Latino physicians in the country has not met the demand. Nationwide, only 6.2 percent of students enrolled in medical schools were Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish origin in 2018-2019, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Haywood Brown, associate dean for diversity at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, said there was a slight increase in the number of Latino medical students in 2020-2021, but there’s a lot to address when it comes to the needs of a diverse population.
“Support for my students is critical if we are going to address the disparity in matriculants, including scholarships and creating pathway programs for students at the high school and undergraduate levels,” Brown said. “Mentoring and fostering an ‘I can’ attitude is one of my goals.”
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George Padilla, 23, wants to serve communities with limited access to health care. As a student at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, he said he knows that his academic excellence is one of many ways to achieve his goals. But economic support also is essential, he said.
“The Tampa Bay Latin American Medical Society has made a great impact on my ability to achieve the goals I have set for medical school and beyond,” Padilla told the Tampa Bay Times. “This allows me to dedicate my time to my passions of learning medicine, conducting clinical research and serving our communities with limited access to health care.”
To continue funding its scholarships, the organization holds many fundraising events with the society’s 80 members and their families throughout the year. The group also promotes family-oriented activities such as Fiesta de Reyes and La Noche de San Juan as a way to maintain the Hispanic traditions, according to the Tampa nonprofit’s mission statement.
Sticking with the group’s agenda during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was an uphill battle, López-McCormack said. All the fundraising activities had to be canceled in 2021, except for one golf competition, but the organization says it is resuming its normal fundraising schedule this year.
“It has not been easy, but we continue with our work and goals,” she said.
López-McCormack studied at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine and trained at Texas Children Hospital in Houston. She worked as a pediatrician for more than 40 years, but she said she has never forgotten her first job: serving the underprivileged population of Liberty City in Miami.
“Now that I am retired as a pediatrician, I will have more time to achieve my goal to expand TBLAMS and become more involved in our community,” López-McCormack said.
Her leadership has made it possible help students such as aspiring epidemiologist Gloria Flores, 21. Her parents came to the U.S. from Mexico and they have always faced economic insecurity, she said. As her second semester at USF drew closer, Flores said she was worried about how she would manage to pay her school fees and meet her other financial responsibilities.
“Luckily, the TBLAMS have made a huge impact in my life by allowing me to worry less about how I would pay for my education and focus more on my studies,” Flores said.
Fellow USF student Pimentel voiced similar thoughts. She said her annual scholarship of $2,000 will help her in many ways, allowing her to focus more on her studies.
“It’s important having someone to encourage and believe in you when you’re the first to go to college in your family and deal with that milestone,” said Pimentel.