By: Erik Pedersen, Senior Communications Manager
BALTIMORE – There are approximately 1,500 miles between Puerto Rico and Notre Dame of Maryland University’s campus. Despite that distance, however, Puerto Ricans currently make up 15 to 20 percent of the current student population in NDMU’s School of Pharmacy, as personalized outreach from faculty and staff helped form a connection with the small Caribbean island which continues to grow stronger by the year.
The School of Pharmacy opened its doors in 2009, and during those early years Puerto Rico was identified as an ideal site to grow enrollment. There were a large number of Puerto Ricans interested in becoming pharmacists, but only one pharmacy school was located on the island at the time. The school’s founding dean, Dr. Anne Lin, and director of admissions Lawrence Shattuck began making regular trips to the Puerto Rico to introduce Notre Dame to the community.
“It’s important to be very hands-on with the students,” Shattuck said. “It’s best to meet and talk with them directly rather than just trying to send flyers down or do things remotely. We attend graduate fairs and engage with students one-on-one, and we also try to meet with pharmacy club members on the University of Puerto Rico campuses. And then there’s always follow-up afterwards.”
Once they arrive in Baltimore, Puerto Ricans have excelled in their studies, with many serving in leadership positions for a variety of student organizations to help set themselves up for success after graduation. Below, a 2018 graduate and three current students share their path to NDMU and the opportunities that followed.
A Leader On Campus and After Graduation
Dr. Mayrim Millan-Barea D’18 knew she wanted to work in healthcare after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez with a degree in biology, but it wasn’t until her grandmother suffered a stroke that she was drawn specifically to pharmacy.
“As she was recovering from the stroke, I was motivated to learn more about how medications worked and how they impacted the body,” Dr. Millan-Barea said. “I also have an aunt who works as a pharmacist in a retail setting in Puerto Rico, and I was so impressed that she could look at the bottles my grandma was taking and tell me all of the side effects they could give her. That whole experience is what grew my interest in pharmacy.”
The deadline, however, to apply to pharmacy school in Puerto Rico for the upcoming year had already passed, so Dr. Millan-Barea instead submitted applications to five schools in the United States. NDMU was the lone school to accept her, a decision which would prove beneficial for both parties. After graduation, Dr. Millan-Barea completed her residency while earning her MBA from Johns Hopkins University. She now supervises a staff of close to 40 employees while working as an assistant director of pharmacy operations and medication use systems at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
At NDMU, Dr. Millan-Barea served as president of the American Pharmacists Association – Academy of Student Pharmacists (APhA-ASP), and she was inducted into the Phi Lambda Sigma (PLS) Leadership Society and Rho Chi Pharmacy Honor Society. She was the lone Puerto Rican in her class, though there were others in the classes above and below her. It was midway through her time on campus that she noticed a large jump in students coming from the island.
“I always served as a point of contact for any Puerto Rican or Hispanic students interested in attending,” she said. “I had a great experience at Notre Dame, and I was more than happy to share that with everyone else.
“There was such a strong sense of community in the School of Pharmacy,” she continued. “We had so many different cultures coming together, not just Puerto Rican or Hispanic, and I enjoyed that so much. I could also tell that the professors were invested in my growth. I knew that if I gave it my all, they would reciprocate that effort to help me succeed.”
More Than a Number
Notre Dame was firmly established as a presence in Puerto Rico by the time Ana Flores Santiago D’24 was ready to apply to pharmacy school. She met Shattuck for the first time through her role as treasurer for the Future Pharmacists Association (FPA) at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey. The FPA’s current president at the time, Lexaly Melendez Ramos D’23, had also already been admitted to NDMU, and her first-year experience at the school helped influence Flores to follow in her footsteps.
“One of the things that most caught my attention when she told me about her experience was the relationships she was able to establish with her professors,” Flores said. “In my undergrad, there were so many of us that we would sometimes be seen as a number. The opportunity to have that interpersonal connection with my professors and future colleagues was a big reason I decided to attend Notre Dame.”
Flores credits her professors for helping her navigate the initial years of pharmacy school, teaching her the study and time management skills needed to succeed academically while still having the ability to maintain extracurricular activities. She is active with several organizations on campus, highlighted by her current role as president of APhA-ASP.
Through that position, Flores is able to advocate at the state level as a student representative on the Maryland Pharmacists Association 2022-23 Board of Trustees. On campus, she additionally serves as a tutor for second-year students, she is a member of the PLS Leadership Society, and she works as a student ambassador for the admissions committee. As an ambassador, she is able to aid prospective students in the same way that Melendez Ramos assisted her back in Puerto Rico.
“I did some Q&A sessions with prospective students last semester, and it’s been awesome to see some of those that I had interacted with attending NDMU this year,” Flores said. “I talk about my experience here, answer any questions they have and give tours of campus. I was in their shoes once, so it’s been really nice to help other students make such a huge decision for their futures.”
New Career Leads to New Opportunities
Edgardo Rodriguez D’24 works with Flores in a leadership position for APhA-ASP, serving as the organization’s Policy Vice President. Through that role, he became the first Notre Dame student to be elected to the APhA-ASP National Executive Committee as the official delegate for Region 2.
“I’m able to advocate at the national level on behalf of student pharmacists,” he explained. “This platform allows us to give our thoughts on how we can improve the profession and keep up with new trends that could allow the next generation of pharmacists to expand the scope of their practice.”
Rodriguez, who is also president of NDMU’s Phi Lambda Sigma chapter and treasurer for Rho Chi, had a less traditional path to pharmacy school. He graduated from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico with a bachelor’s degree in business administration before earning a Juris Doctor in Law from Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. Volunteering with a variety of nonprofit organizations on the island, however, inspired him to turn to pharmacy.
“I found in pharmacy the opportunity to make a positive social impact on the community,” Rodriguez said. “Over time I realized that my passion was to help people lead healthier lives through access to quality healthcare. I encourage anyone who thinks they aren’t satisfied with the career they chose at 18 years old to consider a different path. It’s never too late to try something new.”
After obtaining the required science prerequisites, Rodriguez was ready to apply to pharmacy school. Notre Dame’s success in engaging with Puerto Rican students – Rodriguez first learned of the school through friends that were already enrolled – and a scholarship from the School of Pharmacy which provides two years of free housing on campus to out-of-state students all helped influence his decision to attend.
“The prestige that Notre Dame has in Puerto Rico was one of the top reasons that I came here,” Rodriguez said. “In addition to the strong curriculum, the quality and high standard of professionalism among faculty members, and the countless leadership opportunities on campus.”
Finding Her Voice at NDMU
Moving to the United States was a big leap for Marielie Carrasquillo Rivera D’24, who only had to drive 10 minutes from home to the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras while earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Attending Notre Dame took Carrasquillo Rivera out of her comfort zone in more ways than one, as she was also determined to become more involved as a leader in pharmacy school.
“I was a really shy person as an undergraduate, and I didn’t participate in many activities,” she said. “I wanted to change that at NDMU, so I made a real effort to talk to more people, get to know them and have them get to know me.”
That relationship building ultimately led to her election as president of NDMU’s chapter of the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA), where she is able to advocate for the importance of community pharmacies while also networking with a greater number of students and professors.
“Community pharmacies don’t always get the same amount of recognition as the chains like Walgreens and CVS,” Carrasquillo Rivera said. “But in Puerto Rico, community pharmacies are the big thing. They are where patients really get to know their pharmacists. I’m proud to be a part of NCPA and represent those independent community pharmacies here in the United States.”
Carrasquillo Rivera is also the vice president of Phi Lambda Sigma and the secretary for Rho Chi at Notre Dame. She credits a lot of her success to the support system that she was able to form with her fellow Puerto Rican students when she came to campus.
“When we arrived here, even before orientation the Puerto Rican students in my class had a group chat set up,” Carrasquillo Rivera said. “We support each other constantly, and that motivates the whole group to do well. The shared bond that we have is something special, it’s made pharmacy school seem less daunting.”
Established in 1895, Notre Dame of Maryland University (NDMU) is a private, Catholic institution in Baltimore, Maryland, with the mission to educate leaders to transform the world. Notre Dame has been named one of the best "Regional Universities North" by U.S. News & World Report.