October 26, 2021, 9:46 a.m. David Mitchell — Natalie Rodriguez, M.D., found her path in family medicine at the University of California-San Diego Student-Run Free Clinic Project. She’s still there two decades later, mentoring the next generation of primary care doctors.
“I met so many mentors who were practicing full-scope family medicine and serving a variety of underserved communities in San Diego,” she said. “It was like, ‘Wow, I had this dream of what I want to do, but now I really see it in action in my mentors.’ I love building relationships with people and sustaining those relationships over a long period of time, so family medicine just made sense for me.”
Rodriguez, a child of Cuban immigrants who was the first person in her family to attend college, said she found support and connection at the clinic.
“UCSD lacked diversity when I was a student,” Rodriguez said. “When I went to the clinic, there was a sense of coming home. My patients reminded me of my grandma. It was a familial feeling, and I loved being a part of that.”
When Rodriguez transitioned from med school to the Scripps Mercy Family Medicine Residency in Chula Vista, she asked the clinic’s founding director, Ellen Beck, M.D., to save her a job. Today, Rodriguez is the clinic’s associate director.
“I came back and was so excited to be involved,” Rodriguez said. “The patients are just so incredibly wonderful. They teach me so much about life and how to face challenges and adversity with grace. They’re the most resilient people I’ve ever met.”
Rodriguez, who is an associate clinical professor in UCSD’s Department of Family Medicine, said working with students offers her protection from burnout because they are “so excited to be making a difference.” She also is community faculty at the Scripps Chula Vista residency program, where her duties include supervising residents at a federally qualified health center and at two school-based health centers. She recently was recognized by the Association of American Medical Colleges with the Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Award.
“I’m not someone who likes to be the center of attention,” she said. “That’s not a comfortable place for me, but I think what I can say is that I feel really seen. I do what I do because I love it, so there’s just something really special about being recognized for what I would say is not just what I do, but who I am as a person.”
Rodriguez is an adviser to the UC-San Diego post-baccalaureate premedical program and director of the medical school’s conditional acceptance post-baccalaureate program, which targets students from underserved and disadvantage backgrounds and those who are underrepresented in medicine. The conditional acceptance program also provides advising and participation in the student-run clinic. Such programs have helped University of California medical schools increase diversity. Underrepresented minorities accounted for 23% of first-year students in 2020-21, up from 14% in 2001. Rodriguez also is director of the school’s medical Spanish course.
Rodriguez knew from an early age that she wanted to be a physician and was influenced by her pediatrician, a longtime family friend who also had roots in Cuba. As an undergraduate, Rodriguez participated in a summer internship living and working in the east village of downtown San Diego, including volunteering with the Environmental Health Coalition on a project that offered families kits to test for lead paint in homes in older, underserved neighborhoods.
“That was a pretty galvanizing experience for me,” she said. “It confirmed my desire to work with underserved populations. I wanted to serve Spanish-speaking people and give back to communities like the one I had grown up in. I’ve always found ways to give back, but it’s an honor that that it’s built into my job now. I love that I get to serve patients, teach students and residents, and help promote diversity at our university. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”