October 21, 2020 – Vanessa Rodriguez, a second-year UF medical student, knows firsthand what it feels like to have others doubt her drive or question her potential. The recipient of the Denny Cook Scholarship and co-president of the UF College of Medicine chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association, or LMSA, has one piece of advice for those facing similar criticisms: keep pushing.
“Being a first-generation student from a family that came to the U.S. from Cuba with nothing but drive to make a better life for themselves, I aim to be an example for all young women who share my background,” Rodriguez says. “There were individuals who doubted me, and I’m here. This scholarship has granted me the opportunity to share my story with others and learn how to be a guiding light to all who I cross paths with.”
In her role as co-president of the LMSA, Rodriguez strives to create a sense of community among her fellow Latinx colleagues while sharing the tenets of Latinx culture with all of her classmates. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2019, only 3.8% of doctors in the U.S. identified as Latinx, and Latinx students comprised 6.2% of medical school applications for the 2018-2019 academic year, while white applicants constituted nearly half of the applications. Through social media advocacy and other outreach projects, Rodriguez aims to shed light on the Latinx experience in medicine with hopes of increasing the number of Latinx health care providers.
To commemorate National Hispanic Heritage Month, which ended Oct. 15, 2020, Rodriguez took to Instagram to share a series of videos showing UF College of Medicine faculty and students explaining what being Latinx means to them. When it’s safe to gather again, Rodriguez says she hopes to hold in-person LMSA events for her fellow medical students.
“The students in our school are diverse because of our experiences. It’s important to learn from each other and apply that to caring for patients. My goal as co-president is to have my classmates appreciate Latin culture and share with them our core values of respect, gratitude, communication and trust,” she says.
These core values were instilled in Rodriguez by her grandmother, and it was when her grandmother experienced a health scare that Rodriguez realized the bright future she could have as a patient care provider.
“I remember, during my junior year of college, I received a text message saying, ‘We’re in the hospital with Abuela.’ My heart sank to my stomach,” Rodriguez recalls. “I witnessed firsthand the pain she underwent, and I was overwhelmed by the care provided by the hospital. That instance solidified my admiration for the healing nature of the practice of medicine. It granted me a perspective of tremendous use where I know how it feels to be on the other side of things.”
Second-year medical student Alexandra Hernandez, a close friend and classmate of Rodriguez, says Rodriguez’s personal experience with medicine has created a future care provider who shows true empathy toward both patients and colleagues.
“Vanessa is one of the most caring individuals I’ve met, and she will never hesitate to drop what she’s doing to be there for a friend. Her energy and openness provide a warm and welcoming environment, allowing others to feel supported and loved,” Hernandez says. “I truly believe Vanessa’s selflessness and compassion will seamlessly transfer over to her future as a health care professional, as she will always put her patients first and foster long lasting patient relationships.”
Rodriguez looks forward to a career in internal medicine where she can cultivate intimate relationships with her patients. As a student, she’s building her skill set by volunteering at the Equal Access Clinic, a network of student-run, free health care clinics, where she serves as a translator. Here, she’s learned the power of communication and the value in building diverse care teams who can make any patient of any background feel heard and appreciated.
“Being able to speak a patient’s language has a tremendous impact. It takes a great deal for a patient to be able to share their struggles with someone; if they’re able to speak their native language while doing that, it makes the patient-physician relationship that much stronger,” she says.