RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – MAY 8, 2020 – When Betty Monfort first arrived in the Rio Grande Valley about five years ago, she had no idea she was in one of the fastest-growing areas in Texas.
She had moved here from Florida to help set up a new medical school at UTRGV, but the Valley itself was uncharted territory.
“I landed in Harlingen. I rented a car at the airport. From the airport to the campus in Harlingen is less than 10 minutes,” she recalls with her typical humor. “But with my sense of direction, I made a right at the airport instead of a left. An hour and a half later, I was close to Raymondville.”
Monfort, senior assistant dean for Admissions for the UTRGV School of Medicine, might not have known much about South Texas, but she knew a lot about starting up a medical school. She arrived with a resume stacked with experience after helping launch medical schools at Florida International University in Miami and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, as well as Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.
Still, she knew it would be a challenge. And as she drove around lost that day, she remembers meeting a bystander who helped her find her way back to town, to Valley Baptist Medical Center, near campus. They talked, and she told him she was in the Valley to help start a medical school at UTRGV. His reaction when she tried to thank him truly moved her.
“He had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘No. I should be thanking you. This is the medical school we’ve been waiting for, for over 70 years. What can I do for you to stay here?’” she recalls.
“I thought, ‘Where have I landed? These people are fantastic!’ I fell in love with the Valley.”
And she discovered that stranger was right. This was a community that for decades had wanted to build a vibrant biomedical hub to serve an area that had been historically underserved.
A few days later, she called her husband to let him know she had put a down payment on a house. So long, Florida. Hello, Rio Grande Valley.
BECOMING ‘THE GODMOTHER’
Monfort originally wanted to be a doctor.
She took the exams, but after some personal health problems knew a career as a doctor wasn’t for her. Instead, she decided to help future doctors get a degree and fulfill their residencies. To put her in position to do just that, she got a bachelor’s degree in Community and Health Education from William Paterson University in New Jersey, and went on to earn a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University.
On Saturday, May 9, 2020, as the UTRGV School of Medicine’s inaugural Class of 2020 graduates in a virtual commencement ceremony, Monfort will have fulfilled yet again her dream of helping usher brand new doctors forward into their careers.
The road to 2020 had its share of bumps in the road, she said, but through it all, the students were resilient and committed. They persevered.“I feel a strong sense of pride for our students’ accomplishments,” Monfort said. “I’m a bit sad because I will not see them for a long while. I’m enthusiastic for what the future holds for them.
“And I feel a sense of accomplishment for our new School of Medicine. Not many schools have been able to be so successful with their inaugural class,” she said. “This is like having your first-born leave home!”
She is proud of the fact that 100 percent of this first graduating class matched with their residency programs. It was tough to accomplish, she said, but with a dedicated faculty and administration, as well as enthusiastic students, they were able to do it.
“It is very difficult for a new medical school to have such success in their first match,” Monfort said. “We not only had 100 percent results, but the caliber of the residency programs where these students matched was unparalleled.”One of those successes is Donna resident Daniella Concha, a first-generation college student with seven siblings. She was matched in internal medicine at Columbia University New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, and soon heads to a New York ravaged by COVID-19.
Concha says Monfort has been there all along the way — like a godmother, as some of the medical students have said — helping her through medical school by offering advice and keeping her updated about opportunities to present her scholarly work.
“She was always very reinforcing of my abilities since the start of medical school and would share her own personal experiences with me in an effort to motivate me to reach for my dreams,” she said. “That was very valuable during the ‘grind’ of medical school. I’ll always value Betty for her belief in the students, the mission of the school and the Valley community!”
Monfort said she will be watching the virtual commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. tomorrow from her home – with a big box of tissues at her side.
“After I wipe the tears, I will place these 39 gifted young doctors in a special place in my heart,” she said.
Then, she gets back to work, which doesn’t stop for her. Already, she is gearing up for the next cohort of medical students.
“You see, I specialize in starting medical schools. But this school, in this fantastic Rio Grande Valley with its generous and loving people, is very special,” Monfort said. “I will finish my career here, and I could not have made a better choice.”
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.
UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.
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