As a Mexican American, Julia De Luca, a second-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, is well aware of the struggles disenfranchised populations often face when obtaining equitable, accessible health care, and she’s passionate about making a difference.

“Growing up in Southern California, I was influenced by my mother’s background,” De Luca said. “She grew up in a gang-ridden neighborhood of East Los Angeles. Even though she eventually found her way out, her experiences were still a significant influence on our family culture. I could see firsthand the health disparities that minorities experience, and I felt like I could really make a difference.”

De Luca also feels her journey to medical school was deep rooted in her own personal experiences as a patient cycling in and out of doctor’s offices. After 10 years of debilitating pelvic pain, she was finally diagnosed with endometriosis.

“I have personal experience with being a patient, and I felt like I could apply that perspective as a doctor. I could provide my patients extra comfort and support,” she said. “I could bring empathy to the bedside and help make some really negative situations slightly more comfortable.”

De Luca attended Orange Coast College before transferring to the University of California, San Diego, where she majored in biochemistry and cell biology. She spent three years working in a clinic and doing medical research when her cousin, who lives in Blacksburg, told her about the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) and urged her to apply.

Even though her big city, West Coast background gave her pause before applying to a small school in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, she took the leap of faith.

“I love it here,” she said. “I’ve totally embraced this rural community. I’m really grateful to be able to leave my California bubble, move across the country, and try something completely new. Roanoke is a lovely town with so much to offer.”

De Luca’s start to medical school was not what she expected when she tested positive for COVID-19 on the first day of school and had to isolate for three weeks. The illness left her with some long-term health issues.

“It was a pretty rough start to my medical school journey,” she said. “But aside from that, I have been so pleasantly surprised at what VTCSOM really has to offer and how much I’ve learned so far. I would love to just talk to myself prior to this journey and reassure myself of that.”

One thing that is essential to De Luca’s education has been VTCSOM’s problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum in which small groups of seven students each work in a learning format using actual patient cases. Groups are facilitated by faculty members, but in essence, students teach themselves.

“I can’t imagine doing medical school without PBLs,” she said. “Over time, as we rotate groups, you get to learn everyone’s teaching and learning styles, and you’re able to adjust accordingly. It’s a fantastic way of learning the material.”

Each Friday, class members come together for a conversation with the patient they have been studying that week. Known as the Friday Wrap-Up, it’s an experience that few other medical schools offer their students.

“Friday Wrap-Ups remind us we’re not just dealing with physiology and pathology, but also a real person with real emotions and perspectives,” she said. “As we study our PBL case each week, we’re encouraged to think as if we were the patient’s doctor. Then to actually meet the patient each Friday and learn how it all played out in real life, it’s really awesome.”

Influenced by her own personal health journey, De Luca will be conducting her research into chronic pelvic pain with James Casey, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, who is a minimally invasive gynecological surgeon with Carilion Clinic.

“Female reproductive health often gets forgotten,” she said. “It means a lot to me that there are people here who care about these issues. I’m really hoping I can make an impact on this health issue. The ongoing research in female reproductive health at VTCSOM made an impact on my choice to come here.”

De Luca is the recipient of a scholarship and two other sources of VTCSOM financial assistance. The Drs. Michael and Sue Nussbaum Endowed Scholarship helps support a Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine student from an underrepresented population in medicine. The Founding Dean Cynda Johnson Vision Fund is awarded at the discretion of the dean and goes toward the school’s priorities and initiatives. Finally, VTCSOM’s IMPACT Scholarship, which is awarded to up to five talented incoming students annually to ensure an inclusive student body representing its diverse population and committed to leading improvements in the health of patients and communities.

“I am grateful and humbled,” she said. “Had I not received this assistance, personal finances would have come in the way of me making the leap to come to VTCSOM. The financial strain of medical school is definitely a burden. If we want to build a healthy community with access to good health care, I think it’s really important to attract diverse students. There are some special medical students out there who really want to just change the world.”

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