UTHealth Science Center at Houston School of Public Health El Paso conducts its business, research and classes, in the Cardwell Collaborative, 5130 Gateway Blvd. East. (Courtesy Cardwell Collaborative)

The Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation announced this week that it awarded $500,000 to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health El Paso for scholarships that would make it easier for residents to pursue and complete graduate degrees.

Leaders with the foundation and UTHealth El Paso campus said that the first of the scholarships could be awarded as early as the fall semester. The announcement was made Wednesday as  part of National Public Health Week. The goal is for the UTHealth campus to enroll and graduate more El Pasoans with public health backgrounds, who could focus on preventative care.

UTHealth established its El Paso campus in 1992 to study and conduct research in the largest international metropolitan area in the country. It is one of six within the UTHealth system. Some of its students also are enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Texas at El Paso, or the medical or dental schools at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

Kristina Mena, dean of the UTHealth El Paso campus, said that students who want graduate degrees in public health will be excited about the opportunity to apply for this scholarship, which could have a monetary value of up to $20,000 for tuition and fees. The school also will award partial scholarships.

“It will be life changing for them,” said Mena, who joined UTHealth El Paso in 2001. Finances are a big factor for student applicants, who range from working professionals to those who just earned their undergraduate degrees. They often juggle jobs and academics. “It’s going to be even more impactful for students who shied away from attending graduate school because of the cost.”

UTHealth El Paso conducts its business, research and classes in the Cardwell Collaborative, 5130 Gateway Blvd. East. It moved into the building in 2019. The campus enrolls approximately 80 students, although not all attend every semester due to professional responsibilities. About 90% of the students are from the Paso del Norte region. Mena estimated that the scholarship fund will help 20 to 25 students during the next five years to take additional courses and graduate sooner.

Mena said the school will use print and social media, word-of-mouth, community engagement and other marketing techniques to alert current and prospective students about the new scholarship. UTHealth and the Hunt foundation are working on application deadlines and requirements.

She said the Hunt foundation’s gift also shines a light on the importance of public health and the diversity of meaningful career options for Paso del Norte residents who want to tackle such issues as climate change, pandemics and gun violence.

Woody Hunt, chairman of the Hunt Family Foundation and a former member of the UT Board of Regents, said he was familiar with the work done at the UTHealth El Paso. He said he started to have discussions with Mena about 18 months ago about the campus’ programs and degree plans.

The original funder behind the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine at TTUHSC El Paso, Hunt said the pandemic alerted him to the health challenges the community faced and its need for more resources, so he reached out to Mena because of the important role that UTHealth El Paso plays in the community.

“Something I learned a long time ago through my association with the Paso del Norte Health Foundation is that we have a medical system in our country that pays to get sick people well, but it doesn’t really function in the way that it pays to keep people from getting sick,” Hunt said. “So there’s no funding mechanism on the prevention side.”

He said it was only in the past few months that he decided on the level of support and the restrictions to the gift that would be focused on scholarships to help students who otherwise would not be able to continue their education. He hoped that some of those skilled individuals would stay in the community to be among the frontline medical care providers to improve public health care.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2020 that five out of 20 top industries projected to be the fastest growing in the country in the next decade were health care and social assistance.

Hunt said that the data has shown that it is better to invest in preventative health care than treatment for chronic diseases such as diabetes. The Paso del Norte Health Foundation reported in 2022 that 15% of adult El Pasoans live with this condition.    

Hunt called UTHealth El Paso an underutilized resource. He hoped that his foundation’s gift would remind others of its existence and generate more support, and spur UTHealth El Paso to be more proactive in efforts to reach out to others to get additional funds to extend its mission.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.