Student's plan: Return to Texas-Mexico border to serve

By LaKisha Ladson 

April 2010

There’s an important sign at the place where El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, meet: “This is the border between the United States and Mexico.” The message is printed twice: in English and in Spanish, separated by a thick, solid line.

Fourth-year medical student Diego De la Mora thinks of himself as being from the big line in the middle.

“I was born in El Paso, but raised in Juárez,” he said. “I’m from that line.”

Diego De la Mora

Match Day allowed Mr. De la Mora to continue on his long journey to provide health care and education to the people who live in border communities, and he is grateful to his natural family and to those who have become his American family for their support throughout his medical education.

Mr. De la Mora decided at a young age that he wanted to attend medical school at UT Southwestern, with the goal of becoming a cardiologist. So after graduating from high school in Mexico, he determined that attending college in Dallas was his best option to get into UT Southwestern.

His family struggled to pay for his first semester at UT Dallas. He arrived with an old laptop, a backpack full of books, and a suitcase containing an electric skillet his mother insisted he take so he could cook for himself.

Mr. De la Mora entered the Joint Admission Medical Program, a program established by the Texas Legislature in 2001 for economically disadvantaged undergraduate students preparing for a spot in a Texas medical school.

Each summer the program allows JAMP participants to work at a Texas medical school. Happily, Mr. De la Mora’s first summer brought him to UT Southwestern.

“I was really excited because this is where I wanted to attend,” he said.

But it wasn’t without its challenges. On his first day in the summer program he took a reading test that showed he possessed the English vocabulary of a fifth-grader and the reading comprehension of a seventh-grader.

The program allows students with reading deficiencies extra time to take tests, but Mr. De la Mora declined, because “I wanted to be like everybody else and do this right."

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He learned to memorize material the first time he read it and with hard work, support from family and JAMP leaders, financial support from campus jobs, scholarships and loans he completed his degree at UTD and was selected to enter UT Southwestern.

He spent many hours preparing for his Medical College Admission Test, and the work paid off; although his English scores remained somewhat below average, his biology and physics scores were more than competitive.

“The verbal scores of many students from border towns may not be as good as native English speakers, yet that shouldn’t hinder us from becoming the best doctors we can be, especially for border-town patients,” Mr. De la Mora said. “In some ways working at Parkland Memorial Hospital was like a border town in that many patients were from Mexico and had advanced diseases with interesting pathologies. I found that with me they could understand the instructions better.”

At a Southwestern Medical Foundation luncheon for scholarship students in fall 2006 Mr. De la Mora happened to be seated with philanthropists Tom and Carolyn Walker. In the course of the event he told them about his childhood and his dreams of becoming a cardiologist working with patients in border communities. The Walkers were struck by his drive and decided to help finance the rest of his medical school education.

“They were very generous, and said that they wanted to be part of my future,” Mr. De la Mora said.

In addition to providing support for Mr. De la Mora, the Walkers got to know members of his family and developed an interest and concern for them as well.

“I wouldn’t have been here on Match Day if it weren’t for my own family and for people like Tom and Carolyn Walker, who supported me as if I were their family,” he said. “I am very grateful.”

And the story continued on Match Day. The soon-to-be Dr. De la Mora realized his first choice: a UT Southwestern match in internal medicine.