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Keck School graduates prepare to lend a helping hand

by Leslie Ridgeway
Kathleen Ruccione, one of 250 students to graduate in the MS, PhD and MPH commencement ceremonies at the Keck School of Medicine of USC (USC Photo/Jon Nalick)
Photo: Kathleen Ruccione, one of 250 students to graduate in the MS, PhD and MPH commencement ceremonies at the Keck School of Medicine of USC (USC Photo/Jon Nalick)

Some are the first in their families to graduate from college or earn an advanced degree. Some are parents bringing their children along while they conduct research or fitting in classes while working full-time. They come from varied backgrounds with one common purpose — to help others with the education they received from the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Yohualli Balderas-Medina Anaya, Kathleen Ruccione, Claradina Soto and Shantal Villalobos earned degrees at the MS, PhD and MPH commencement ceremonies on May 15 on the Health Sciences Campus.

Balderas came to the United States from Mexico City when she was 4 years old. As an undocumented immigrant, Balderas benefited from President Barack Obama’s immigration reform plan, which she said enabled her to earn her Master of Public Health degree this year as well as her MD from the Keck School in 2012. The decision to join the regional executive board of the Latino Medical Students Association in Los Angeles led Balderas to begin a mentorship program for high school students whose parents are undocumented immigrants in hopes that the students, too, will be encouraged to follow her path.

Balderas, who plans a career in family medicine, will begin her residency at UCLA Medical Center in June.

“Graduating from graduate and medical school is an achievement not only for me, but for the larger community, and the many students who I represented in crossing that stage,” she said. “My presence gives hope, inspires and proves that our dreams are achievable.”

For Ruccione, earning a PhD in preventive medicine represents the completion of a lifelong dream. A nurse and health educator in the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where she has worked for 40 years, Ruccione waited until her son had graduated from the California School for the Deaf in Riverside, Calif., and had started college before making her dream come true. As a full-time employee, she was able to take only one or two classes a semester.

Ruccione’s work with children who have cancer encouraged her to focus her research on how children are physically and emotionally affected by their treatment. She plans to lead research efforts in survivorship care and adolescent/young adult oncology.

“I believe there is much more that can be done to help young people and families survive — even thrive — after cancer,” she said. “I also believe that research is the way to establish evidence-based practices that are effective. I am excited to devote myself to this work during the next chapter of my life.”

Soto, a full-blooded Native-American whose parents are Pueblo and Navajo Indians, was inspired by the Native-American culture to choose a focus in tobacco prevention for her life’s work.

Tobacco is used in a ceremonial fashion in the American Indian culture, making the development of prevention strategies challenging. With lung cancer being the second-leading cancer in this population, Soto wanted to understand smoking habits, beliefs and attitudes with a goal of creating culturally competent solutions, while earning her doctorate in preventive medicine.

“The fact that this work is being done by a native researcher is huge,” Soto said. “There are not that many Native-American PhDs, and we need more of them. It means a great deal to me to earn this degree, especially for my children. They have traveled with me to many tribal areas throughout California to gather my data, and it means a lot to have them understand what I’m doing.

“I hope I can help create a better lifestyle and well-being in the American Indian population,” she added.

A challenging background triggered a love of learning for Villalobos, who earned an MS in global medicine.

In her youth, school became a coping mechanism that paid off in more ways than she could imagine. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Villalobos got involved in a program in which she and other students handed out bag lunches, which included information on human and civil rights, to day laborers in the area. When she came to USC, Villalobos proposed to start a program here but take it a step further by including information about access to health care for the workers.

“I had the opportunity to be a leader and organize ideas at the Keck School,” she said. “It means a lot to me to be able to graduate, and a lot to my family. I have generations of Latinos behind me. I’m doing this for them and myself.

“My education helped me be stronger, for myself and my family, and I found my calling in global medicine,” she added.

Villalobos’ next stop is the University of Pittsburgh, where she plans to earn a medical degree on her way to becoming a pediatrician.

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