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Dean Leonel Vela, M.D., featured left, takes University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, who began his role as administrative leader of the UT System at the beginning of the year, on a tour of the UT-Rio Grande Valley simulation hospital at the Harlingen Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen in January 2015.

Photograph By PAUL CHOUY

For the past 15 years, medical education in the Rio Grande Valley has been under the watchful eye of Dr. Leonel Vela, M.D., Founding Regional Dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC-SA) Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) in Harlingen. Vela began his work at the Harlingen RAHC on March 1, 2000. He observes his 15-year anniversary with the institution this month while already deeply committed to his new role in the next chapter of medical education in the Valley at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. Vela has been named the Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the new medical school. “I am thrilled and excited about what lies before us all,” Vela said. “We are so fortunate to have Dr. Francisco Fernandez at the helm as Founding Dean of the UT-RGV School of Medicine. He has established a team that has coalesced around his vision of Valley medical education that is focused not only on producing excellent physicians but also physicians being an integral part of transforming healthcare for the area’s residents. Dr. Fernández is always mindful that the community’s best interests be paramount in our efforts.” A native of Pharr, Vela said he draws strength from his humble farmworker family background. “We see so many challenges in our region,” he said. “When I started at the RAHC 15 years ago, I always had my eye on the eventual transformation of this program into a full medical school. Now my dream, and that of many others, is being realized. UT-RGV and its School of Medicine will be a beacon of hope for a better future for all residents of the Rio Grande Valley.”

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Dr. Leonel Vela of Pharr, 15 years with Harlingen and Edinburg Regional Academic Health Centers, takes on new role with UT-RGV School of Medicine

By CHERYL TAYLOR

For the past 15 years, medical education in the Rio Grande Valley has been under the watchful eye of Dr. Leonel Vela , Founding Regional Dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC-SA) Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) in Harlingen .

Vela began his work at the Harlingen RAHC on March 1, 2000. He observes his 15-year anniversary with the institution this month while already deeply committed to his new role in the next chapter of medical education in the Valley at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. Vela has been named the Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the new medical school.

“I am thrilled and excited about what lies before us all,” Vela said. “We are so fortunate to have Dr. Francisco Fernandez at the helm as Founding Dean of the UT-RGV School of Medicine. He has established a team that has coalesced around his vision of Valley medical education that is focused not only on producing excellent physicians but also physicians being an integral part of transforming healthcare for the area’s residents. Dr. Fernández is always mindful that the community’s best interests be paramount in our efforts.”

As Regional Dean, Vela has directed the medical education and biomedical research components of the RAHC. He managed the development and establishment of the RAHC campuses during their formative years. He holds an academic appointment of Professor with Tenure in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the UTHSC-SA School of Medicine.

“Reflecting over the past 15 years, I remember the challenges and the joys,” Vela said. “We had to establish the faculty base for the RAHC; and it was exciting to work with the architects to contribute to the design of the buildings, both the Harlingen RAHC and the RAHC Medical Research building in Edinburg.”

Above all, Vela said he is proud of the educational programs he and his team developed in those early years.

“I am particularly gratified that over the years RAHC-based medical students have performed comparable to San Antonio-based students in their clinical clerkships and exams and in obtaining acceptance to top residencies across the country,” he said.

A native of Pharr, Vela said he draws strength from his humble farmworker family background.

“We see so many challenges in our region,” he said. “When I started at the RAHC 15 years ago, I always had my eye on the eventual transformation of this program into a full medical school. Now my dream, and that of many others, is being realized. UT-RGV and its School of Medicine will be a beacon of hope for a better future for all residents of the Rio Grande Valley.”

ABOUT DR. VELA

Vela received his undergraduate degree in Medical Microbiology from Stanford University and his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine. He completed post-graduate studies at Harvard University where he received a Masters of Public Health Degree; he also completed post-graduate training in Preventive Medicine. While at Harvard he was the recipient of a Kellogg Fellowship in Health Policy and Management. Vela received additional training in epidemiology at the CDC in Atlanta, and a fellowship in Community Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. He is board-certified in Preventive Medicine and is a Diplomate of the American Board of Preventive Medicine.

Prior to his current appointment at UTHSC-SA, Vela was the Vice President for Rural and Community Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC). At TTUHSC, he was the first holder of the Marie Hall Endowed Chair in Rural and Community Health. Additionally, Vela was the Medical Director for Telemedicine and Editor of the Texas Journal of Rural Health.

Vela has served on several state, national and international committees addressing tuberculosis, diabetes, migrant health, border health and telemedicine. He has been involved in publications and professional presentations addressing these topics, including public health and emerging infections on the border. He has participated in several professional organizations and previously chaired the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health for the U.S. Secretary of Health.

Vela has received various awards and was honored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Migrant Head Start Branch, as recipient of the Plate of Bounty Award. He also served as Chair of the Group on Regional Medical Campuses for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

ABOUT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS-RIO GRANDE VALLEY

The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 in a historic move that will combine the resources and assets of UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American, the Regional Academic Health Center and for the first time, make it possible for residents of the Rio Grande Valley to benefit from the Permanent University Fund, a public endowment contributing support to eligible institutions of The University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System.

UT-RGV will also be home to a School of Medicine and will transform Texas and the nation by becoming a leader in student success, teaching, research and healthcare. UT-RGV will enroll its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine will open in 2016.

The existing Regional Academic Health Centers in Edinburg, Harlingen and Brownsville are forming the foundation of the UT-RGV School of Medicine.

In Edinburg, plans are underway for the construction of a UT-RGV School of Medicine campus that will incorporate the local RAHC, as well as provide the first two years of a student’s medical school education.

Construction has been underway for almost nine months of a $54 million UT-RGV Medical Academic Building, which is located next to the Edinburg RAHC on the northern portion of the UT-Pan American campus, which will be renamed UT-RGV by next fall.

Occupying more than 88,000 square feet, the UT-RGV Medical Academic Building will be a teaching facility that promotes faculty and student interaction at the beginning stages of medical school. The building will include an auditorium, digital library, clinical skills center, pre-clinical laboratories and an anatomy teaching facility. Multiple small classrooms, seminar rooms and other features will offer opportunities for small group problem solving and inter-professional educational experiences.

The region-wide medical school will interact with and complement facilities in Harlingen and Brownsville, including the existing Regional Academic Health Center, and will make extensive use of online and distance learning and will support continuing education in the region.

Construction began in July and is expected to be complete by the time the first medical school classes begin in the fall of 2016.

The institution will also be home to a School of Medicine and will transform Texas and the nation by becoming a leader in student success, teaching, research and healthcare.

UT-RGV will enroll its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine will open in 2016.

ABOUT UT SYSTEM CHANCELLOR McRAVEN

The governing board of The University of Texas System on Tuesday, July 29, selected Admiral William H. McRaven, then the commander of the United States Special Operations Command, as the sole finalist for chancellor of The University of Texas System.

McRaven met earlier in the spring 0f 2014 with Regents’ Chairman Paul Foster, then-Vice Chairmen Gene Powell, and Steve Hicks, who comprised the search committee.

“We are honored to announce Adm. McRaven as our sole finalist for the next chancellor of The University of Texas System,” Foster said. “Adm. McRaven is a nationally and internationally respected leader and a true American hero. His decades-long experience in proven strategic leadership, teamwork, vision, decision making, discipline, and working directly with national and world leaders make him an excellent choice – among a pool of extraordinarily distinguished candidates – to guide the UT System into its next chapter of greatness.”

A 1977 graduate of UT Austin’s College of Communication, McRaven is a Navy SEAL who earned his master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. During his 37-year distinguished military career he has commanded at every level within the special operations community. In 2011, he was named Texan of the Year by the Dallas Morning News and was also honored by Time magazine as a runner-up for Person of the Year.

President Barack Obama nominated McRaven for his appointment to the rank of four-star admiral in 2011, and soon after he was named commander of the United States Special Operations Command. As the leader of U.S. Special Ops, McRaven oversees a 67,000-person, $10 billion operation and plays one of the nation’s premier roles in keeping the country safe.

Perhaps best known for planning and orchestrating the operation that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden and playing a supporting role in the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, McRaven has been called bold, innovative, visionary and courageous by national leaders and his military peers. His military career has spanned the globe. He has served as a trusted White House advisor and has spent countless hours delivering Congressional testimony, assisting lawmakers in understanding critical policy issues.

The selection of McRaven as the finalist for the chief administrative position at the UT System is the result of a national search for a successor to Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D. Cigarroa had served as the UT System chancellor since 2009 but announced earlier in 2014 his plans to return full time to pediatric transplant surgery.

In January, Cigarroa returned to the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, where he served as president for nine years, to head the pediatric transplant surgery department. During his time as chancellor, Cigarroa continued to perform transplant surgeries several times a month. He maintained a strong focus on the health of Texas, and under his leadership the UT System is establishing two new medical schools, one at UT Austin and another at UT Rio Grande Valley.

“It is a bittersweet time for me. Being chancellor of The University of Texas System has been the highlight of my career,” Cigarroa said. “But I am thrilled by the Board’s selection of Adm. McRaven as the sole finalist, and I truly believe that the future of the UT System could not be in more capable hands.”

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JENNY LaCOSTE-CAPUTO, KAREN ADLER, and DAVID A. DÍAZ contributed to this article.

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