Jose Sala calls the Philippines his mother land, the Rio Grande Valley his home and South Texas College the bridge to his dream of becoming a doctor.
"I know that without South Texas College I wouldn't be where I am today," he said.
And where is that? Serving as a very successful 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 10 heart centers in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report.
"I guess you could say I am a pretty ambitious person and so I wanted to work for the best," Sala explained.
Sala's family immigrated to the United States in 2005, seeking to make a better financial future for themselves. Previously his father, a pharmaceutical representative, quit his job to manage the family farm and spend more time with his children. Unfortunately the venture failed and the family needed a new source of income.
"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 Weslaco ISD. Soon thereafter it was time for me to start school. The main concern for me was affordability because I was termed an international student at the time and paying out of state tuition. I looked into South Texas College and it was the best opportunity for me."
He enrolled and by 2008, he had earned an associate's degree in biology, as well as completed the college's Associate Degree Nursing Program with a 4.0 grade point average. The experience wasn't without its challenges.
"Coming from another country, English was really my second language and so it took some adjustment getting used to using it so much," he 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 I had to ask for the nursing assistants to translate for me, but it was too time consuming and I felt like it was such a burden to call them all the time for translation," he continued. "So I decided to take an extra Spanish class at STC. I figured that it would help me a lot in communicating with my patients. I credit the class, my friends, co-workers and my patients for teaching me most of the Spanish that I know right now, and my goal is to become fluent in it so that when I return to the Valley, I'll be able to have an authentic, effective therapeutic relationship with my patients in their own native tongue."
Although he struggled with language during his rotations, it was that exact experience that provided his best memory as a nursing student.
"The first time I went to rotations I had one patient to take care of who wasn't even that sick, but the fact that he was depending on me to help him get better was scary," he said. "The patient noticed how nervous I was and he put me at ease. He saw through my fears and encouraged me to move forward."
In order to succeed at STC, he not only took extra courses outside of his study area and went above and beyond in his rotations, he also took advantage of the small class sizes that are typical at the college to build relationships with college faculty.
"Two of my teachers, Jayson Valerio and Richard Coronado, were my mentors and I learned so much from both of them," Sala said. "They fostered my ability to think critically and communicate effectively, and encouraged me to pursue my passions. I hope other students realize what an invaluable source of wisdom the STC instructors are."
And throughout the process of earning his degree, he had the support of his family, which made all the difference.
"Ironically, my dad graduated from STC's ADN Program a semester before me so studying and going to college was truly a family affair," he expressed. "We leaned on each other to get through and it was a unique experience. 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 in Kingsville."
Following his STC 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 and my goal was just to learn as much as possible and soak up the experience of working with critically ill patients," he explained. "And 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."
His intense focus on learning and being the best possible nurse for patients with cardiovascular disease has put him at the top of his game. And his quest to continue to be the best landed him this summer at The University of Texas Health Science Center Houston School of Nursing to earn his bachelor's in nursing by 2012. As if that isn't enough hard work, this fall he will begin his studies at Rice University in Houston towards a bachelor's degree in policy studies and healthcare policy management.
"I plan to go to school full time, work at least part time and graduate with both degrees by 2014," Sala explained. "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. Given my previous work history and my interest in the area, I think it will be a good fit for my skills and knowledge-base."
As for other students looking at careers in the healthcare field, Sala has some words of wisdom to offer.
"Pursuing a career in healthcare requires a lot of hard work, diligence in your studies, the ability to communicate efficiently and effectively, and time management skills," he concluded. "But, if you put your heart in it and you are sure you are following your dreams, you will love the work and where it takes you in the future. I know that my STC experience was formative for me and it's a great place for anyone in this field to start."