Doctor-to-Be Strives to Support Spanish-Speaking Community
Jul 10, 2024
Sutter Health
Latino family of father, daughter wearing a stethoscope and mother pose in a restaurant for photo

By Debbie Ritenour, Vitals contributor

Priscilla Covarrubias didn’t just grow up in a bicultural home; she grew up in a bicultural community. Covarrubias is from Salinas, an agricultural community along the Central Coast with a Hispanic population of 79%. Her parents immigrated to the United States as children, and she and her four siblings grew up speaking both Spanish and English.

Many bilingual communities in the U.S. experience health inequities, and Salinas is no different. At a young age, Covarrubias noticed some members of her community struggled when it came to accessing healthcare.

“I saw it even within my own family,” she says. “My grandparents cannot go to doctor’s appointments alone because they do not understand their provider. They need to have a family member present who speaks both English and Spanish to help them translate and make decisions.”

Today, as a member of the first cohort of scholarship winners who started in the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science MD Program as part of the Class of 2028 this summer, Covarrubias hopes to promote health equity among underrepresented communities, particularly Spanish-speaking populations. The full-tuition scholarship, academic support and experiential learning opportunities are courtesy of Sutter Health, a not-for-profit, integrated health system based in California.

“Healthcare is not as accessible as one may think,” she says. “My goal is to help bring healthcare to medically underserved communities. That’s what motivates me and makes me passionate about wanting to be a doctor.”

Motivation and Mentorship

Covarrubias decided in middle school that she wanted to go to UCLA. From that point on, she made it her mission to learn what she needed to do to make that dream come true. As a first-generation college student, she had to learn about everything from taking the SAT to applying for financial aid and navigating postsecondary education. Her efforts paid off, and in 2019 she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in Spanish.

Covarrubias developed a strong work ethic over the years. She worked in various customer service positions during high school, and at UCLA, she worked 20 hours a week in the Central Ticket Office while being a full-time student.

“Working in customer service for more than 10 years has provided me with a strong foundation in patient care,” she says. “These jobs taught me to go beyond what is expected to help people, and I learned how to interact with others professionally and respectfully in any setting.”

No job has had a bigger impact on her than her medical assistant job with Santa Lucia Medical Group in Salinas, where she worked the last four years. Covarrubias credits the practice’s three physicians—Michael C. Sepulveda, M.D.; Orlando Rodriguez, M.D.; and Luciano Del Toro Vargas, M.D.—with helping her find her path in life.

“They all in their separate ways supported and inspired me,” Covarrubias says. “They took me under their wing and explained to me what they do. I fell in love with the idea of being a doctor, and I’m so appreciative that they took that interest in me.”

Two Latina woman pose in front of university monument sign

Priscilla Covarrubias, left, poses in front of Charles R. Drew University monument sign with her childhood friend, Natalie Saldana, who is also attending the university’s physicians assistant program.

A Dedication to Diversity

Once Covarrubias knew she wanted to go to medical school, she needed to find the right school. She quickly was drawn to CDU, which is located in the Watts-Willowbrook area of south Los Angeles. The school aims to prepare healthcare professionals who are committed to meeting the needs of underserved populations.

“I’m inspired by their mission,” Covarrubias says. “I feel like it aligns with what I want to do. I want to work with marginalized Spanish-speaking communities that need access to quality care.”

Covarrubias also appreciates that CDU specifically seeks out students with diverse experiences and upbringings.

“They want to see people like me who have different backgrounds become doctors,” she says. “They appreciate our different points of view, and they want to celebrate our differences. I think the school is perfect for me.”

Covarrubias remembers finding out she was accepted while watching the Super Bowl with her family. She went through a range of emotions as she read the email.

“At first I was in disbelief,” she says. “Then I felt very grateful. Finally, I felt a sense of relief that all my hard work had paid off. I know there is a lot more to do and this is just one step of the process, but I felt so relieved.”

She also is thankful for the support she is receiving from Sutter Health. “Once I found out that I got the scholarship, I was able to be in the moment and enjoy everything about getting into medical school without worrying as much about finances,” she says. “I’m so grateful to Sutter for believing in me and offering me the scholarship.”

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