Originally published October 31, 2016
By Laura L. Acosta
The University of Texas at El Paso will award more than $7.7 million in scholarships over the next four years to qualified disadvantaged students in social work, occupational therapy and physical therapy graduate programs in the College of Health Sciences.
The funding is made possible through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“UTEP offers superb education and training programs which help to meet the growing demand for health professions graduates,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio during a press conference to announce the scholarships in October 2016.
“We very successfully prepare our students to take on broader roles and responsibilities within an increasingly complex health care environment and to meet the critical health care needs of the Paso del Norte region and of diverse populations nationwide,” President Natalicio added. “Today, we are able to provide even greater access to such opportunities within the health professions through HRSA’s robust scholarship support for aspiring health professionals.”
UTEP’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, Master of Social Work program and Master of Occupational Therapy program each will receive more than $2.5 million from HRSA’s Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students (SDS) program to fund scholarships for underrepresented minority students with financial need.
During the fall 2016 semester, UTEP awarded 130 SDS scholarships. Awards varied from just under $600 to $27,000, said College of Health Sciences Interim Dean Osama Mikhail, Ph.D. Eligible students can receive up to $30,000 per year.
The scholarships already have transformed the life trajectories of many of the recipients, including Liliana Jimenez, a second-year physical therapy student.
Since starting the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program in 2015, Jimenez, an anatomy teaching assistant in the physical therapy and occupational therapy programs, has relied on student loans to pay for her graduate education.
But the scholarship that Jimenez received in October will help offset the cost of her student loans and enable her to attend a residency program after graduation and obtain additional training in a specialty area.
“Because of this scholarship, I will graduate with less debt, so then I can afford to get more training and education after DPT school,” Jimenez said. “My plans are to remain in El Paso and serve the community here, but my dream is to have positive impact beyond El Paso, too. Being awarded this scholarship will help make these dreams come true.”
Changing Health Care Access
HRSA provides funds to accredited U.S. health professions schools to increase the diversity of the health professions workforce and the number of providers working in underserved communities like El Paso County.
Since July, HRSA has distributed more than $149 million in new awards through 12 workforce programs, including the SDS program, which helps 78 health professions schools provide scholarships to disadvantaged students. Besides UTEP, only one other occupational therapy program and one other physical therapy program received funding.
President Natalicio congratulated Mikhail and each of the program directors – Christine Chen, Sc.D., occupational therapy program director; Candyce Berger, Ph.D., chair of the social work department; Loretta Dillon, DPT, interim DPT program director; and Celia Pechak, Ph.D., interim DPT associate program director – for their successful efforts in securing the HRSA grants and strengthening UTEP’s capacity to educate leaders and develop a diverse health care workforce to meet 21st century needs.
This is the first year that students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy and Master of Social Work programs will benefit from the SDS program.
Since 2012, the Master of Occupational Therapy program has awarded scholarships to 77 students. About 90 percent of these scholarship recipients are from El Paso County and are now practicing in high-needs communities across the region.
Edgar Ortiz received the scholarship beginning in 2013 until he graduated from the occupational therapy program in December 2015. The funds covered 100 percent of his tuition and also helped pay for books, travel expenses and living costs.
After earning his occupational therapy license in February 2016, Ortiz was hired at University Medical Center’s Rehabilitative Services Department and at HealthStar Pediatric Rehab and Home Health in El Paso.
“I help rehabilitate people who I see every day on the street, in stores, and in my community,” said Ortiz, who was born and raised in El Paso. “I relate to the people I serve due to having gone through many of the same struggles myself, such as fear, illnesses and financial struggles. They remind me so much of my family and friends who are close to me in the United States and Mexico.”
In 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services designated El Paso County as a Health Professions Shortage Area for mental health providers.
Kathryn Schmidt, Ph.D., social work assistant professor, said the scholarships will enable UTEP to transform the region’s mental health workforce.
Jessica Spohn, who will graduate in May from the Master of Social Work program, said the scholarship will help her concentrate more on her studies and less on how to make ends meet.
“Right now I have two jobs, an internship, am a full-time student, and I’m also the parent of a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter,” said Spohn, who plans to quit one job now that she has the added financial support. “This way, I can be prepared to work with border region clients and organizations to best serve their needs and missions.”
UTEP’s College of Health Sciences prepares bilingual and bicultural health professionals in social work, public health, kinesiology, clinical laboratory science, physical therapy, occupational therapy, rehabilitation counseling and speech-language pathology.
Nearly 70 percent of the college’s graduates practice in the Paso del Norte region and work with medically underserved populations.