"Giving back brings fulfillment and purpose to your own life"

  Wednesday, December 21, 2022
  Around Campus

By Saira Cabrera

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS  – It's no surprise that medical education is expensive, even in one of the nation's most affordable medical schools like the UTRGV School of Medicine, where the annual tuition and fees are $19,639 for in-state residents, compared to the $37,080 average cost for all public medical schools.

As of 2021, 76% to 89% of medical school graduates leave school with an average of $203,062 in total education debt, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

So UTRGV's Dr. Leonel Vela decided to do something about that. The senior associate dean for Educational Resources and chair of Population Health and Biostatistics for the School of Medicine knows well that a little can mean a lot.

"I was born and raised here in the Valley. Like many families in the area, my parents lived in poverty. We were farmworkers and worked in the fields, picking all sorts of fruits and vegetables," Vela said. "And so, you think, can someone like that have a dream of being a doctor?"

Vela made it happen, though. He attended Stanford University for his undergraduate studies, went on to the Baylor College of Medicine, then completed his post-graduate studies at Harvard University. Before joining the UTRGV School of Medicine, he held several leadership roles in public health and higher medical education.

The road from la pisca (picking crops) to some of the nation's top universities was paved with encouragement and guidance from his mentor, and what he acknowledges as "great sacrifice" from his family.

"Many people gave and sacrificed over the years for me to be where I am today," he said. "That's the motivation behind the Dr. Leonel Vela Medical School Endowed Scholarship."

His dream to create an endowed scholarship that represented the sacrifices made by so many over decades – not only for Vela's medical career but for establishing a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley – was "many, many years in the making," he said.

He hopes that, specifically for medical students, the scholarship conveys that they are valued and that he hopes to alleviate some of the financial hardships of attending medical school.

"Mostly, I hope that through this scholarship, talented students will have the means to become doctors and, one day, serve in the medically underserved Valley where I grew up," he said.



The scholarship, created in 2017, became fully funded as an endowed scholarship in 2021 and was awarded to its first recipient this academic year, 2022.

Lauren Ashley Herrera, now a fourth-year student at the UTRGV School of Medicine and a Valley native of San Benito, is this year's recipient of the very first Dr. Leonel Vela Medical School Endowed Scholarship.

"The price of pursuing a medical education is not cheap," Herrera said. "Many of us take out thousands of dollars in loans, but scholarships truly help reduce the debt we accrue over years of schooling."

At UTRGV, all scholarships, including the Dr. Leonel Vela Medical School Endowed Scholarship, are centrally administrated by the Scholarship Office. Although donors are not involved in the selection or distribution process, the responsibility lies in the Scholarship Office through the scholarship committees – in this case, the School of Medicine Scholarship Selection Committee. The UTRGV Division of Institutional Advancement oversees all endowments as part of the Endowment Compliance Program, and the Scholarship Office leads the administration.

According to Vela and the medical school scholarship committee, Herrera embodies what the scholarship represents: students who demonstrate a commitment to medicine through academic excellence and leadership.

"Lauren is an impressive future physician," Vela said. "She is the type of student we envisioned in terms of the scholarship, committed and dedicated to serving her community. All those qualities are what this endowed scholarship represents."

Herrera currently is interviewing for General Surgery residency programs and is excited to have been named the first student for this scholarship.

She said she can’t thank Vela enough for the opportunities the scholarship presents.

"I am humbled and honored to be the first recipient of Dr. Vela's scholarship," she said.



Dr. Michael B. Hocker, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine and senior vice president for UT Health RGV, said Vela is an inspiration for his leadership and philanthropy.

"Dr. Vela is well known and recognized across our region and state for his work establishing our medical school and his accomplishments in the medical education field," Hocker said. "He has been an advocate for students from this region. I applaud his passion for advancing healthcare."

Vela's commitment to students is now sealed in perpetuity through the creation of the Dr. Leonel Vela Medical School Endowed Scholarship and will continue to recognize third-year medical students enrolled in the UTRGV School of Medicine who demonstrate academic excellence and leadership.

"It's important to give back. Whether financially or with time, giving back brings fulfillment and purpose to your own life," Vela said. "I think all of us, in our own different ways, can give to support and help others."


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.