Maria Soto-Greene has worked for almost 30 years supporting underrepresented students and faculty throughout their careers in medicine.
The executive vice dean of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School has received accolades and awards for being a champion of diversity, inclusion and equity.
But to really understand why Soto-Greene is as committed today as she was when she first started her career in medicine in 1980, you need to examine the layers of her life. Underneath, she says, you will find that the path she took to get to where she is today is much like the one taken by the more than 1,000 students and 200 minority faculty who have been mentored through the Hispanic Center of Excellence and its Centers for Excellence Consortium on Minority Faculty Development, both of which she helped start.
The key lessons in life came deeply rooted from my family, said Soto-Greene. My grandmother was the matriarch of the family. She was a fascinating individual who worked hard through the (Great) Depression, didnt have much, but never spoke ill of anyone.
Growing up, Soto-Greene lived in a four-room flat in Hoboken. Neither of her parents, who came to New Jersey from Puerto Rico, graduated from high school. Her mother was still a teenager when she was born. At 16, her family had little money, no health insurance and couldnt afford a telephone.
The same year, her 15-year-old brother died before being diagnosed by a doctor. Soto-Greene, an internist, said he went blind and believes her brother probably had a brain tumor. After his death she became the go to person to handle family concern.
Four years later, as she was about to graduate from what is now Douglass Residential College, an assistant dean at New Jersey Medical School, who taught a course she took at Rutgers, gave her some life-altering advice. When Soto-Greene told him that she planned to begin her career as a medical technologist, he recognized her potential and encouraged her to pursue a career as a doctor.
That led to the work she has been doing over the past three decades to improve the lives of minority students and encourage them to go into the medical and other health professions field.
He asked me what I was going to do for the rest of my life, said Soto-Greene, who started her career in critical care and emergency medicine. If he hadnt, I can say that I wouldnt be where I am today.
Soto-Greenes story is like that of Jesus Rosado, a surgical resident at NJMS, who says the thought of becoming a doctor from a single-parent home where no one in the family had gone to college was just a dream until age 16 when he got involved in the Summer Youth Scholars program at the medical schools Hispanic Center of Excellence.
Everything changed the moment I was accepted to participate, Rosado said. It was there I would meet other people just like me. I was inspired to pursue my dreams and make them into a reality.
Soto-Greene says she realized from the beginning of her career that certain people have advantages and others often feel like they have negative labels on their backs. They may be poor, come from under-educated families, and arent expected to do well.
There are individuals who have incredible potential but dont get tapped, she said. It is so important when you achieve success that you dont forget how you got there and provide support and help to others who will come after you.
Thats why, she said, she wanted to create the student and faculty organizations that focus on minority populations. I believe that everyone needs a group where they feel comfortable and supported, she said. We need allies because this is collectively going to inspire us all to make a difference.
Soto-Greene who got her start with support from the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund, which assists low-income students who are capable and motivated but not adequately prepared for college has been recognized for developing and supporting enrichment programs for high school and college students.
Recently, she received the Association of American Medical Colleges 2019 Herbert W. Nickens Award, given to individuals who make outstanding contributions to promoting justice in medical education and health care equity in the United States.
Still, she understands that there is a lot more to do to increase diversity in the medical field. According to a new study published in JAMA Network Open, although the actual number of minority students in medical schools increased between 2002-2017, the rate of increase does not mirror the populations that they serve.
We have not fulfilled the potential and there are too many people that are being excluded, Soto-Greene said. But it starts with the students and our communities. If we focus on these areas, our nation can thrive.
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