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Dr. Melawhy Garcia wanted to elevate her work to improve health among Latinos in California by applying for PhD programs, but she wasn’t sure about it.
She wanted to hear from experienced faculty and scholars about what the process would be like.
That’s why she attended the Éxito! Latino Cancer Research Leadership Training at UT Health San Antonio.
“I actually knew some of the faculty presenting at [Éxito!], so I definitely wanted to hear from them and see what their journey was like going through a PhD program,” Garcia said.
Éxito! helped Garcia apply to PhD programs and get accepted to a joint Doctoral Program in Public Health from the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University.
Now, Garcia is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Science at California State University, Long Beach. She’s also the director of the school’s Center for Latino Community Health, Evaluation, and Leadership Training, where she works to address Latino health disparities, specifically in obesity prevention and diabetes management.
She’s thankful for her Éxito! experience and how it helped her academic journey.
“I really liked the fact that I was able to learn from others and gain skills. I really enjoyed the fact that they helped us start our personal statements. Overall, it was just a great experience being part of the program,” Garcia said.
How Éxito! Helped Her Apply to PhD Programs
Garcia was just 17 when her mother was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure and colon cancer—unfortunately giving her firsthand knowledge of the income, insurance, and other barriers faced by Latino cancer patients.
Since then, Garcia has put cancer in her crosshairs.
She earned her Master’s in Public Health and began contributing to cancer prevention health disparities programs for Latinos in California.
Garcia applied to Éxito! as she sought more training.
“I actually had applied for PhD programs a prior year but I hadn’t really given a lot of dedication and time like I should have, so I think going to Éxito! really made me realize what it takes,” Garcia said.
Éxito!, led by Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez of the Institute for Health Promotion Research in the Department of Population Health Sciences at UT Health San Antonio, recruits 25 master’s-level students and health professionals annually for a culturally tailored summer institute in San Antonio, Texas, optional internships, and ongoing education to promote pursuit of a doctoral degree and cancer research career.
The program helped Garcia realize how much effort was needed to apply to PhD programs.
“I think my biggest challenge was the GRE. I didn’t really prepare for them, so when I went to Éxito!, I realized sometimes you need to really prioritize things,” Garcia said.
After Éxito!, Garcia prioritized studying, successfully took the GRE, and was accepted to PhD programs.
Meeting Other Latino Researchers
Another impactful aspect of Éxito! for Garcia was meeting other Latino academics.
“I really enjoyed the training. I made a lot of great friends that are actually still my friends today that have now also moved on to PhD programs and we keep in touch,” Garcia said.
Garcia appreciated how the faculty members at Éxito! addressed her cultural background and concerns.
“I really enjoyed the fact that it was very culturally tailored for Latino students. Latino students definitely thinking about applying for a PhD program have a lot to consider when it comes to family, life planning, marriage, children, and so I really liked the fact that it really touched on all those things. The people that presented were going through different life situations and were still able to get a PhD,” Garcia said.
The tips that faculty gave participants about how to do the applications set Garcia up to succeed when applying in the following fall.
“I remember they gave us this really nice presentation about what it takes to apply and how to prepare competitive applications. I think that really helped to get me into a good mindset of how much time it would take me, so I actually was able to apply to two programs and I got into both the following spring. I definitely think that Éxito! was really what prepared me to apply for those programs,” Garcia said.
Her Advice for Latino Students
Now that Garcia is a professor herself, she often recommends that her own students attend Éxito!
“I recommend Éxito! to students all the time. I definitely tell them, ‘If you’re interested, if you think you want to apply for a program, go to Éxito!’ Find out exactly what it takes, what people are going through, meet other students who are just as motivated, but maybe also just as scared to take that next step,” Garcia said.
She also recommends staying connected to others in academia who can support you and your goals.
“I think really just building a network of students and friends and faculty is amazing. Hearing from everyone, being in an encouraging environment, I think just really pushes people into applying,” Garcia said.
Learn More About Éxito!
Of 226 Éxito! trainees since 2011, over 25% have enrolled in or, like Garcia, graduated from a doctoral program.
Also, the Éxito! summer institute significantly increased trainees’ confidence to apply to a doctoral program and academic self-efficacy, according to a 2019 study of Éxito! program results published in the Journal of Cancer Education. The study also found significant increased research skills among Éxito! interns.
In 2018, Éxito! was named an innovative “Program to Watch” in a report by Excelencia in Education, a national group that promotes Latinos in higher education. The group also includes Éxito! as part of its “Growing What Works Database.”
Go to www.exitotraining.org for more information.
How Can I Advocate for Latinos in Healthcare?
You can make a difference by advocating for health equity in your own community.
Select your county name and get a customized Health Equity Report Card from Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio, which shows your area stacks up in housing, transit, poverty, health care, food, and other health equity issues compared to your state and nation.
The Health Equity Report Card auto-generates local data with interactive maps and comparative gauges, which can help you visualize and explore health inequities.
Latinos in healthcare like Garcia may also face barriers and bias when working in the industry.
Did you know that doctors have implicit, subconscious preferences for white patients over those of color?
This is implicit bias.
These biases — stereotypes that affect our understanding and decisions about others beyond our conscious control — lead to discrimination and health disparities.
Fortunately, implicit bias can be “rewired” for compassion for patients of color.
Download the free Salud America! Action Pack “Health Care Workers and Researchers: Find If You Have Implicit Bias and What to Do Next.”
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.