UTPA alumni overcome adversity and pay it forward
Contact: Roxanne Lerma Casares, Staff Writer (956) 665-2741
Posted: 01/05/2012
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Dr. Norma Iglesias and her husband Alvaro know the struggles of supporting a family and pursuing an education. That is why the couple has now stepped forward to provide much-needed summer scholarships to The University of Texas-Pan American's Physician Assistant Studies Program (PASP).

- Dr. Norma Iglesias and Alvaro Iglesias.

The Iglesiases grew up in poor homes. By the age of 10, both were working with their relatives in the fields picking fruit. They spent their summers traveling throughout the United States as migrant farm workers. Her family worked the fields in Illinois and Michigan. His family picked grapes in California.

"We had it really hard," Alvaro Iglesias said. "We were pretty poor."

The Iglesias's said they found it difficult to envision graduating college while they were toiling in the fields, but school was a top priority in both households.

"I was in the migrant worker program and so I wouldn't start school until October. We came in late and had to study hard. My parents reinforced that. They always told us if you don't want to keep working in the fields for the rest of your life you have to get yourself an education," Alvaro Iglesias said.

Norma Iglesias said financial troubles also plagued her family. When she was a child, she battled a severe bout of pneumonia, which wiped out their entire savings.

"That was all the money the six of us made that summer. My dad had to pay my bill at the hospital since we didn't have any insurance. We lost everything we earned, every last penny," Dr. Iglesias said.

Yet her father refused to ask for help. He said there were many people much worse off, and insisted they would scrape by somehow.

"I realize how easy it is to lose money," Dr. Iglesias said. "Unforeseen things happen in life."

Her father's refusal to accept hand-outs rubbed off on Norma Iglesias. When she was in high school, the administrators encouraged her to enroll in the migrant study program which included easier classes and fewer assignments. She refused. Instead, Dr. Iglesias negotiated her way into the college-prep curriculum and read textbooks and took extra coursework home to catch up with her classmates.

"I went through a lot of hard work as a child, so I know what some kids have to go through in life," Norma Iglesias said. "It is not easy."

The couple, both from Pharr, met in the eighth grade and learned they shared a similar background. They became childhood sweethearts. They attended then-Pan American University and said every day was a constant battle to stay afloat. Dr. Iglesias said even paying for a meal was a big barrier.

"I still remember that I didn't even have enough money for lunch. I took taquitos from home every day so I wouldn't have to eat in school. I didn't even have enough to buy a soda so I would eat by the water fountain so that I could eat and then get up and take a sip of water," she said.

Their hard work paid off. The pair graduated in 1981 with bachelor's degrees in biology, and then headed upstate. During that time, Norma Iglesias was surprised to receive a $2,000 scholarship that was instrumental in her studies.

"Dr. Iglesias told me that the scholarship she received was a significant amount back then and paid for much of her tuition and fees," Cecilia Johnson, director of planned giving in the UTPA Development Office, said. "That scholarship made all the difference in the world to her. Now, she and her husband want to give back from the blessings they've received."

Alvaro Iglesias worked tirelessly at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston's (UTHSC) dental branch while his wife was a medical student there. Norma Iglesias went on to earn her medical degree and eventually opened her own family practice clinics in San Juan and Pharr.

Alvaro Iglesias took over as the medical office administrator for his wife's practice, after a stint as a pharmaceutical representative. The couple also launched A&N Investments, through which they help with real estate business start-ups and property purchases.

Now they have begun to pay it forward. This is the second year that they have donated money for PASP scholarships. Each contribution operates like emergency funding and helps five physician assistant (PAs) students to stay in the rigorous medical program.

"The ones that can help should help others. It can make a huge difference," Dr. Iglesias said.

The couple has already seen firsthand how much their generous donation has transformed lives. Second year PA student Westly Keating was ready to quit the program and find full-time employment when he received summer funding from the Iglesias' contribution.

"My student loan didn't go through, and being in PA school you really can't work, so I needed some financial help. The program was able to cover my tuition and fees and help pay my room and board for Summer I," Keating said. "I would like to thank them for helping me when I was in great need. I wouldn't have been able to attend the summer section if it wasn't for them and their donation."

The intense program is unforgiving. Students like Keating cannot afford to miss even one class. According to Frank Ambriz, UTPA PASP chair, summer is when financial aid tends to dry up for students.

"Grants and scholarships are not readily available for summer sessions. Our PA students attend school 12 months a year for 28 months consecutively. They are between classrooms and clinics anywhere between 10-16 hours a day. They cannot afford to work during this 28 month period," Ambriz said.

Dr. Iglesias now has five PAs working in her two clinics.

"I really appreciate the physician assistants we have. They do a wonderful job and I think we need more of them working in the Valley," Dr. Iglesias said. "So now if I have enough to help others, I will help as much as I can."

Ambriz says that help is crucial to the University, and a tribute to the program.

"I feel a great gratitude when our preceptors and our local physician employers want to contribute to the PA program," Ambriz said. "When they hire one of our graduates and see the impact the PA makes in the clinic, they want to thank the program for training a competent professional."

Norma Iglesias said when she thinks about her poverty-stricken upbringing, it is overwhelming to see their money at work.

"It is just amazing how a small gift can really help someone out and we should all give a lending hand to people who need it," she said.

The Iglesias's said as long as they are able to, they plan to donate every year to help students earn their PA degrees and stay in the Rio Grande Valley.

"I would tell anybody who has made it through like us, to pay it forward to the community whenever possible," Iglesias said. "It is important for us to give back to the community."

His wife could not agree more.

"I remember what it was like, so as long as I can help, then I will help," she said.

To learn more about donating to UTPA contact the University's Development Office at (956) 665-5301.