A child born to a family of Californian teachers found her calling in Minnesota medicine.

“Both of my parents were very proud of me and supportive,” said Alesandra Mendoza, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Minnesota Medical School, “but I realize just how much their teaching background has influenced me. A lot of what we do as doctors is teaching. If we only have our patients for a few days in the hospital or 15 minutes in the clinic, we have a major responsibility to give them the knowledge and resources they need to take charge of their health when we’re not around.”

Mendoza is completing her final year of medical school while applying for residencies in internal medicine — a feat much more challenging in the midst of a pandemic. Yet, her passion for the field has not wavered, saying the practice of internal medicine specifically combines her childhood love for science with the fulfillment she gains from educating others about their health.

“As a hospitalist, you are the primary doctor for patients while they are in the hospital. In that role, you get a snapshot of their medical conditions as well as the social determinants of health and potential barriers to care,” Mendoza said. “Understanding the big picture of someone’s health and using this insight to improve their health outcomes is something that really drew me to a career in this specialty.”

Her career is partly possible because of the Mary Tate SNMA Alumni Scholarship offered through the Medical School. The award recognizes the efforts of a third- or fourth-year medical student who is underrepresented in medicine and has financial need; who has shown a commitment to community service and reducing health disparities; and who has demonstrated an interest in serving urban underserved communities. 

Mary Tate, director of minority affairs and diversity, is one of the longest-serving staff members at the Medical School. Tate first met Mendoza during her first year of medical school, where she later served as co-president of the Student National Medical Association’s (SNMA) Twin Cities chapter.

“Alesandra exemplifies the attributes of the scholarship, and it is an honor to have her as a scholarship recipient. Under Alesandra’s leadership, our chapter had three medical students that served on the SNMA regional board,” Tate said. “Alesandra has always had a heart of service and mentorship. She is a patient and kind person and always treats others with respect. She is inspirational, and I know she will go far in her professional career.” 

Mendoza says scholarships like this are “pipelines into medicine,” which she admits were far and few when she began to pursue the field not only as a Mexican-American but also as a young woman without a network of medical professionals. Through organizations like the SNMA and the Latino Medical Student Association, she found the right connections — but not without hard work.

“Mary really emphasizes these connections,” Mendoza said. “She is an incredible leader and mentor, and she’s worked hard to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in medicine. She makes sure that we are well-supported to be successful in medical school and has always been accessible to us by really championing our causes and our needs. It’s an incredible honor to receive this scholarship in her name.”

During her undergraduate work at Notre Dame, Mendoza first learned about the health disparities among underrepresented groups while volunteering at a safety net clinic that provided healthcare services to non-insured patients. She continued this passion at the student-run Phillips Neighborhood Clinic in Minneapolis, where she cared for patients from many different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds with little or no access to healthcare. She even spent two weeks between her first and second year of medical school to intern with a primary care physician in greater Minnesota and learn about health disparities found in rural areas.

“It’s always been important to me to serve the underserved communities in medicine and to provide quality care to anyone who needs it,” Mendoza said. “I try to approach each patient with cultural humility and take the time to listen and understand the nuances of their life and their goals of care. As a physician, I hope to elevate the voices of the people I serve and advocate for their needs, as well as changes in our healthcare system to eliminate inequity.”

But, first — she has to graduate, and she recognizes the great privilege it has been for her to be in medical school thanks to donor support and scholarships.

“It’s a privilege, but it’s also a great financial responsibility,” she said. “This scholarship has reduced my worry and anxiety because it means that I don’t have to rely as heavily on loans this year. I am grateful to the donors who have helped me throughout medical school and encourage anyone who can to consider supporting current and future medical students. I hope to do the same one day.”

To make a gift to scholarships like this, join the U of M Medical School on Nov. 19 in celebrating Give to the Max Day. The festive recognition of the generosity and support from donors is also a chance for alumni and community members to give to their program of choice, including the Dean’s Fund for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.