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The Power of Community

Giving back to underserved communities has inspired CU School of Medicine student Brenda La through medical school and into her medical career.

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Written by Kara Mason on May 8, 2023
What You Need To Know

This story is part of the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Graduation coverage highlighting our graduates.

There’s a soft spot in Brenda La’s heart for tight knit communities.

The soon-to-be graduate has found herself wrapped up in them from the remote reaches of rural Alaska to the groups of students she has met during her time at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“One of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had at the CU School of Medicine has been the opportunity to meet and cultivate relationships with the incredible people in this community,” says La, co-president of the class of 2023.

La has weaved her love for science and medicine with serving the communities around her and has no plans on stopping when she begins her residency with CU this summer in the Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Training Program. Her chosen specialty, combining internal medicine and pediatrics, brings together all aspects of medicine she loves and allows La to continue doing meaningful work for her community.  

“I think that we should all give back to our communities, because we gain so much from it,” La says. “I got a lot from my community as a first-generation student who needed a lot of resources, so giving back now means so much more to me.”

A passion for science

Even before being accepted into medical school, La, who grew up in the Denver suburbs, knew she wanted to pursue her interest in science, but it wasn’t until an internship during her junior year of college launched her toward medicine.

La was pursuing a business administration degree at the University of Colorado Boulder when she landed at a medical device company.

“I was a finance accounting intern, but I was always finding myself asking the doctors who would come to try the instruments if I could shadow them at the hospital and they graciously allowed me to,” La says. “That’s when I knew medicine was what I wanted to do.”

Brenda La Alaska
Brenda La's journey to medical school included a stop in Nome, Alaska, where she taught a science camp to local students. Photo courtesy of Brenda La.

Also, as an undergrad, La floated the idea of starting a science camp. Coincidently, she says, a friend presented her with the opportunity to teach science to children in Nome, Alaska, home to the Nome Eskimo Community. It was an opportunity she could not pass up.

While La was teaching, she says she was also learning.

“They taught me about their culture and the things that are really valuable to them,” she says. “Their land is at the core of what they do, so if the tide is high, they drop everything and they fish because that’s their source of food for winter.”

These experiences cemented her path toward medicine. La completed her business degree along with the prerequisites needed for medical school. 

Underserved and underrepresented

Before becoming a medical student, La also volunteered at the Aurora-based DAWN Clinic, which offers healthcare services to underserved populations in the city while also providing training opportunities for many CU Anschutz Medical Campus students. 

As a care coordinator at the clinic, La would help address social and economic needs for patients, many of which were newly settled immigrants and refugees. It reminded her of her own family, La says.

“They were like my parents, immigrants from Vietnam who came here didn’t speak very good English,” she says. “I have a really soft spot for underserved communities and I realized these are the people I want to work with, even going into the future. I want to help underserved populations and the least I could do is show up.”

Brenda La Parents
Brenda La, center, poses with her parents on Match Day. After graduation, La will start the Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Training Program with the University of Colorado. Photo courtesy of Brenda La

La found her sense of purpose at the DAWN Clinic, partially because helping one person in those tight knit communities comprised of immigrants and refugees goes a long way. A patient might refer a cousin or neighbor in need because the clinic has gained their trust.

Class co-president and becoming a leader

When she finally made it to medical school, La knew that the course load would be vast and she’d be busy, but even then, she made it a priority to serve her new community.

“As soon as I got to orientation, I met a few of the upperclassmen co-presidents and thought they were amazing,” La says. “I was encouraged to run, but I still wasn’t sure if I should.”

As co-president for her class, Brenda La, second from right, got to serve and advocate for her fellow classmates. La says it was a rewarding position that made her experience in medical school all the richer. Photo courtesy of Brenda La.

Up until the night before elections, La went back and forth over whether she should take the leap.

“I asked myself if I would regret not at least trying, so I ended up putting my name in the drawing,” she says. “Now I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I’m able to advocate for my classmates.”

La says her role has helped her connect to her fellow medical students and it’s taught her about staying true to her values.

“One of the most important things I learned as co-president is that I can't please everyone, but I think we can always make sure that everyone feels heard,” she says. “No matter what all the voices are saying, even if there is some backlash, there can be a lot of love. As long as we have a big vision, love our classmate and each other, and stick true to our values, we’ll be successful.”