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An STC Instructor’s Mantra for Medical Assistants

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“They hear this from me all the time: ‘Your success is my success.’”  – Abigail Rodriguez

Texas Border Business

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MCALLEN, TX – No one likes going to the emergency room. Yet, when STC instructor Abigail Rodriguez rushed her husband to the ER, a familiar face made the ordeal easier to bear.

“The young woman who came in to do the bloodwork was our student,” remembers the veteran instructor and 20-year Program Chair in the Medical Assistant Technology (MAT) department.

Today, that same student is still used as a classroom example of how taking on clinical experiences and going the extra mile garners more than just a grade. As an intern, that same student sensed something was wrong while observing a patient and alerted a nurse practitioner to reassess.

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“Because of that close observation by our student, that patient went to the emergency room because she was having the precursor to a stroke,” recalls the proud professor. “She pretty much saved that patient’s life.”

“That particular student drew blood for my husband.”

It was a gratifying moment in the ER for Rodriguez. Not only was she proud to see STC’s training in action, but she was also assured that her husband was in good hands and that the high standards of her MAT program were paying dividends.

“It’s rewarding to see that what we are teaching them in the classroom is being put into practice in a real-world setting with our loved ones,” says Rodriguez. “These are the next group of individuals that we are training to take care of us.”

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For the veteran professor, the experience of that day perfectly illustrated a motto she has long shared with students:

“They hear this from me all the time: ‘Your success is my success.’”

There’s a lot of success to go around. For the past two decades, Rodriguez’s passion for instructing rising medical assistants has helped bolster health care infrastructure in a critically underserved region. These versatile health care professionals do everything from communicating with patients, coding, and processing insurance forms to performing electrocardiograms and addressing wounds. Working in offices and clinics, medical assistants are an essential appendage in the organism of a successful medical practice.  

It’s a big job, but after three semesters of rigorous training, grads are up for the challenge.

“They come in not knowing any of it, and they leave able to do complex drug calculations and how to write out a prescription,” says the proud professor. “My passion is to see that light turn on … when they understand.”

Rodriguez’s own journey through health care started at the age of 10 when she went in for an appendectomy. Awed by the power of medicine, she joined the Health Occupation Students of America (HOSA) in high school and discovered the career path that would shape her life.

“Back when I was a HOSA student, I learned that medical assistant was in the top 10,” recalls Rodriguez. “Go forward 30 years, and it’s still in the top ten of job opportunities.”

In fact, the career currently ranks seventh for the largest projected job growth out of all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, in Texas, demand is climbing at 27 percent — far above the national average.

The reason for the ongoing demand, according to the professor, is that assistants are well-positioned to move up the ladder: “I’ve always told our students, this is a stepping-stone into a bigger career.”

It’s a good problem to have for a health care professional looking for a head start. Take Rodriguez, who started as a medical assistant in a clinic for six years: “It gave me the experience I needed in health care, and I was able to continue to expand my own education to get to where I am today, a doctoral candidate in the final year of my study.”

Rodriguez went on to become a biology lab assistant at the University of Texas-Pan American (now University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), where her career took an unexpected turn.

“I found out that I really love teaching,” beams Rodriguez. So, when a position opened at STC, she jumped at the chance and has been here ever since.

Her impact on the program began immediately. When, as a new professor, Rodriguez suggested adding the Medical Assistant and Pharmacy Technician programs to the roster, both proved instantly successful. Recalls Rodriguez, “I took on the bulk of teaching and developing both programs.”

The Medical Assistant program launched in Spring 2002 and has never looked back, growing steadily ever since.

“We started with seven students, and now we have more than 100,” beams Rodriguez. The program has also expanded to offer two certificates, plus an Associate of Applied Science degree, while partnering with more than 100 clinics to afford students hands-on clinical experience. “We’re proud of our accomplishments,” says the program chair.

Rodriguez also likes to point out that, of the five faculty members, four are former students and three have obtained their master’s degrees, with some expressing interest in a doctoral program. “If anything,” she says, “we have demonstrated that there is a direct path from our program all the way through a doctorate.”

The program has grown to offer dual credit to high school students and provides a direct pathway for GED noncredit students through continuing education. And because STC’s BAT in Medical and Health Services Management degree shares two of the program’s courses, Medical Assistant students can get a leg up on a bachelor degree.

These MAT courses count toward higher degrees, even as proprietary schools charge $15,000-$18,000 for programs lacking the same transferability. Says Rodriguez, “Anybody coming from that market basically has to start all over.”

That’s why the professor is dedicated to offering an accessible alternative. At STC, the Medical Assistant Technology Associate of Applied Science costs about $7,000-$9,000, with most students receiving financial aid. So, for less than half the price of a proprietary school, students save money and time. 

“Here at STC, because our credentials are stackable, they don’t start over — they keep climbing the ladder.”

Once students finish the associate, explains Rodriguez, all 60 hours transfer to the Bachelor of Applied Technology at STC. It’s a direct pathway that has attracted more and more students, including four of the program’s faculty members.

“I’m almost certain that no other medical assistant program here in South Texas can do that,” says Rodriguez about stackable certifications. “It’s huge.”

For those looking to earn right away, the program also offers a one-semester Medical Office Specialist Certificate, where students can launch right into the workforce before diving into clinical work. The certificate helps learners “get their feet wet,” according to Rodriguez, putting health care workers on the fast track and helping “increase our graduation numbers.”

It’s a life-changing opportunity for some. Just this past semester, one of Rodriguez’s students completed a 180-degree turn, earning her GED and the Medical Office Specialist Certificate at the same time. 

“She was a young mother of two,” recalls Rodriguez. “This one young lady, she was that statistic, a 16-year-old having her first baby, and by the time she’s 18, she has two.”

Despite dropping out of high school, her professor says her student “immediately got hired” upon graduating from STC with her GED and certificate, “and she didn’t start at the minimum wage.”

“It was an opportunity for her, and it put her foot in the door.”

Now, Rodriguez’s student can support her family while returning to STC to continue to build her credentials and her paycheck. And while Medical Assistant Technology students come from all walks of life, becoming in-demand and catapulting healthy careers is the tie that binds.

“I’m just such an advocate for education, and I love what I do,” says Rodriguez. “These are the ways we change the lives of these students.”

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