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Class of 2011: Heritage of hard work

Graduating student Joe Malacara is a former migrant worker who followed his mentor’s path to a pharmacy career.

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About 7,500 students will graduate from The University of Texas at Austin at the 128th spring commencement this Saturday, May 21. Each graduate has a unique story. To celebrate the Class of 2011, we’re highlighting 10 stories, profiling students who have overcome obstacles, discovered new dimensions and doggedly pursued their academic goals.

Growing up a migrant farm worker bending over onions, sweet beets, potatoes and alfalfa and moving from state to state is not all that conducive for finding a mentor. But Joe Malacara was lucky. He found Mr. Smith.

For several months out of the year, Malacara and his family worked side-by-side having driven the 2,000 miles from Mission, Texas to Payette, Idaho. Before he was 12 years old, he was considered too young to work in the fields, so he carried water jugs out to his parents, older brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and other thirsty workers.

The family lived in a migrant camp 12×12-foot cabin for which they paid $35 a week rent. The camp had 25 cabins, and everyone shared public restrooms and showers. They would work 40 to 80 hours a week, depending on the harvest.

When workers had health issues they went to a nearby clinic where only one health care worker Mr. Smith, the pharmacist spoke both Spanish and English.

Malacara decided he wanted to be exactly like Mr. Smith “someone who helped explain health problems and treatments to patients and someone who didn’t work out in the fields like the rest of us.”

Malacara will graduate from the College of Pharmacy in May the first in his family to get a college degree. He is graduating with honors and has accepted a job at an HEB pharmacy in the Rio Grande Valley.

Everyone in his family is coming to Austin for graduation.

“During the many hours we were working in the fields, my father would always tell me that he didn’t want me to have this kind of life,” said Malacara. “He didn’t have a chance to go to school, but insisted that I go to college and make a better life for myself.”

The migrant workers had illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, colds and flu. Many times, Malacara helped translate at the clinic.

“The valley is an underserved area of Texas with many people living in poverty,” said Malacara. “There is a problem just as there was in the migrant farm camps of health literacy. Many patients do not understand their diseases or the treatments.”

This spring Malacara worked in a clinic on an ambulatory care rotation to experience working closely with patients. He saw many patients who came to the pharmacy without knowing what they were prescribed or what it was for because they didn’t understand what their health care provider had told them.

“Having someone trust you to explain what a medication is for and feel comfortable enough to come back and ask you for advice is essentially what I thought pharmacy was when I was a kid and primarily what I believe it is now,” he said.

Malacara is graduating from the University of Texas-Pan American/University of Texas at Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program, developed to encourage high school students to consider pharmacy as a career. It offers students the opportunity to complete four years of the six-year program in their home region. The college also offers a cooperative program at the University of Texas at El Paso, another area of Texas experiencing pharmacist shortages.