Project South Texas offers chance to improve higher education, health care in Rio Grande Valley

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Project South Texas, a plan to merge the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville and establish a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley, commenced Thursday, with former Missouri Southern University president Julio Leon hired to lead all project operations.

Recent studies have shown there is anywhere from 1,050 to 2,146 students currently enrolled at UT-Austin who originate from various counties within the Rio Grande Valley. It is these students who have experienced first-hand the necessity for change in higher education and health care.

Elisa Benavides, biology junior and native of Edinburg, Texas, situated in Rio Grande Valley, said she was offered a full ride to the UT-Pan American campus but elected to attend UT-Austin in hopes of creating a more competitive and challenging environment for herself. 

“After taking summer classes at UTPA my sophomore year of high school, I felt as if I could experience bigger things at UT,” Benavides said. 

Katie Rodriguez, business sophomore from Mission, Texas, said she sees the potential for Project South Texas to inspire confidence and tenacity within residents of the Rio Grande Valley, known locally as the RGV or simply the Valley. 

Rodriguez’s mother, who works as a principal at an elementary school within the Valley recently struggled with her school district to allow her to bring her fourth and fifth graders to UT-Austin and display the possibilities that lay outside the county borders.  

“There are many students in the Valley who want to go into the medical field, but do not have the knowledge or resources to leave the Valley,” Rodriguez said. 

Project South Texas not only aims to inspire a sense of purpose for RGV students, but it also helps mend the growing health and economic problems within the Valley as well. 

“Texas in general, compared to the rest of the country, has a large need for doctors but South Texas in particular has a serious dearth of physicians,” UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said. 

Aside from lengthy waits for the chance to schedule appointments, quality assurance is also a source of trepidation. Rodriguez said her younger brother recently dealt with a severe case of “Cat scratch fever” and needed to be taken to facilities in San Antonio to receive proper care. 

“The doctors in the Valley, who could not diagnose this, wanted to perform exploratory surgery along his neck and the base of his skull,” Rodriguez said. “We took him up to San Antonio, where they immediately diagnosed and treated him.”

LaCoste-Caputo said that statistically, people who go through medical school and practice their residency within the region are 80 percent more likely to stay and practice in that region.

“Giving the opportunity for people to train in South Texas will mean we can build a workforce of physicians there to provide care,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

At the time of its opening, which is scheduled for 2015, the South Texas medical school will be the first medical school within the UT System to be directly integrated with a university. Shortly to be followed by the Dell Medical School at the flagship campus in 2016, the two historically different colleges are now united by a common goal: to provide community health care. 

“We need more opportunity for quality higher education in Texas,” LaCoste-Caputo said.