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Jose Sala calls the Philippines his motherland, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas his home and South Texas College (STC) the bridge to his dream of becoming a doctor.
Today, Sala is a nurse in the cardiovascular recovery intensive care unit at Houston’s Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, which is one of the top heart centers in the country.
“I guess you could say I am a pretty ambitious person, and so I wanted to work for the best,” Sala said.
The road to his current job wasn’t easy. In the Philippines, Sala’s father, a pharmaceutical representative, quit his job in order to manage the family farm and to spend more time with his children. Unfortunately, the venture failed and the family needed a new source of income. So they all immigrated to the U.S. in 2005 seeking a better financial future.
“My aunt told my mother about her experience in the Valley as a teacher and recommended that my mom, who was also a teacher, look at opportunities,” Sala said. “So we moved here and my mom began teaching for the local school district.”
Sala knew that to succeed, he would have to attain a higher education, but cost was an issue.
“The main concern for me was affordability because I was termed an international student at the time and paying out-of-state tuition,” he said. “I looked into South Texas College and it was the best opportunity for me.”
A language barrier
Sala enrolled at STC and by 2008 he had earned an associate degree in biology, as well as completed the college’s associate degree nursing (ADN) program with a perfect grade point average. The experience wasn’t without its challenges.
“Coming from another country, English was really my second language, so it took some adjustment getting used to using it so much,” Sala said. “But, I faced a much bigger challenge with Spanish. During my clinical rotations, most of my patients were Spanish-speaking only, and I literally had to learn Spanish so I could do my patient history and assessments.”
Initially, Sala had to ask nursing assistants to translate for him, but it was too time-consuming. He also felt it was burdensome to call them all the time for their help. So he decided to take an extra Spanish class at STC.
“I figured that it would help me a lot in communicating with my patients,” he said. “I'll be able to have an authentic, effective, therapeutic relationship with my patients in their own native tongue.”
A family affair
Throughout the process of earning his degrees, Sala has had the support of his instructors and family, which made a huge difference.
“My dad graduated from STC’s ADN program a semester before me, so studying and going to college was truly a family affair,” Sala said. “He wanted to start fresh in a new field and given his background in pharmaceuticals, it made sense. The entire family rallied around us. And we set the stage for my younger brother to go on to pharmacy school.”
Following graduation, Sala went to work at the coronary care unit at the McAllen Heart Hospital and at the medical intensive care unit at Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance.
“At one point, I was working two full-time jobs. My goal was just to learn as much as possible and soak up the experience of working with critically ill patients,” Sala said. “I earned enough money the first six months of working to fully pay for my college education at STC. So I would say that my degrees were great investments.”
Sala’s drive to be the best landed him this summer at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Nursing to start on his bachelor’s in nursing. And he has also enrolled at Rice University in Houston to pursue a bachelor’s degree in policy studies and health-care policy management.
“I plan to go to school full time, work at least part time and graduate with both degrees by 2014,” Sala said. “The next step is medical school. I want to focus on critical-care medicine, which requires a person to be very meticulous. And that’s in my nature.”
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