Paul B. Roth, MD, MS
By Cindy Foster

Supporting Scholarship

La Tierra Sagrada Society Celebrates 25 Years of Helping Medical Students Fund Their Passion

Committing to becoming a physician means beginning a journey that can take a decade to complete. Students bring their passion to the endeavor – but all too often they leave with backbreaking debt that requires another decade to pay off.

La Tierra Sagrada Society, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, was created to enhance the safety net available to students in The University of New Mexico School of Medicine and reduce that debt during their education.  

“After I became dean, I realized that we needed to do a better job in developing and growing a larger audience of friends to the medical school,” says Paul B. Roth, MD, MS, former Chancellor for Health Sciences and longtime dean of the medical school.

The School of Medicine, opened in 1964, had just passed the 30-year mark when Roth was appointed dean in 1995. It was still considered a young institution nationally. By contrast, most other medical schools have been around for many decades. 

“They have had generations of graduates who have finished their careers and set up estate planning to give back to their medical school,” Roth says.

“In 1996, most all of our graduates were still in practice, many were at the beginning of their careers, and many were still paying off student loans,” Roth says. “We did not have several generations of people with a history with the school.”

And most UNM medical students – despite paying relatively low tuition – were amassing large amounts of student debt to finance their education. “My dream was to eventually get to the point to where there would be free tuition and fees,” he says.


Paul B. Roth, MD, MS
My dream was to eventually get to the point to where there would be free tuition and fees.
Paul B. Roth, MD, MS

Even if the medical school were fortunate to gain the support to cover tuition, students would still be facing debt and living expenses related to attending school, according to Roth. 

“Tuition and fees probably account for less than half of the total cost medical students incur, and students will still have to pay for books and to pay for room and board,” Roth says. “Those costs are sometimes covered through financial aid and loans but the whole idea is to try to reduce – if not eliminate – any kind of student debt.”

That insight led to the founding of La Tierra Sagrada Society.

“I thought it was a very good time to begin growing the base of donors for the medical school, and I think that, over time, we have seen an increase in the number of gifts and support for the medical school,” Roth says.

One of the more substantial gifts to the School of Medicine was provided in 2014 by Diane Klepper, MD, a professor emerita who had long shared Roth’s passion for supporting students – especially those from rural areas of New Mexico.

Klepper arrived at UNM as a pulmonary medicine fellow in 1967. She went on to serve as the medical school’s assistant (later associate) dean for admissions and student affairs for 31 years.

“Diane really took the idea of building an alumni association and ran with it,” Roth recalls. “We created the Friends of the Medical School, which morphed into LTSS. She has been a great student advocate and advisor and really helped countless students. I still have former students who ask about her and praise her for the work she did.”

Klepper continued to work with the organization after her retirement, and in 2014 she provided for the endowment of a dollar-for-dollar matching fund to provide scholarships for rural students.

The School of Medicine’s Alumni Association had a history of helping students with emergency loans, Roth says, but as a community-based organization, La Tierra Sagrada created a revenue stream from a broader pool of donors.  

The organization’s name – Spanish for “the sacred earth” – was the idea of then-School of Medicine development officer Deborah Sarkas. “We knew we wanted a name that would be culturally sensitive and appropriate that also spoke to our mission,” Roth remembers.

In the beginning, the school also awarded grants help with student-funded research. The research was a requirement of the school and had to be overseen by a faculty mentor, Roth says. “The grants were designed to help provide for the costs of a community research projects.”

The grants were phased out several years ago and the organization now concentrates entirely on scholarships.

La Tierra Sagrada Society has pushed past the $1 million mark in supporting medical student scholarships and community-based research grants. Recipients are chosen by the organization’s 13-member board after students complete an application process.


Fermin Prieto
It is an honor to receive an award and to know you have that kind of support as you continue your studies
Fermin Prieto

“It is an honor to receive an award and to know you have that kind of support as you continue your studies,” says Fermin Prieto, a Class of 2021 graduate.

Over the past three years the society has opened up its process and now also awards scholarships to students in the physician assistant, occupational therapy and physical therapy programs.

The medical school also benefits from LTSS-generated ideas. “Through the years, the LTSS boards and presidents – several of who were from outside the medical school – provided new understanding and vigor to the organization,” says Roth, who retired in 2020.

“Each year we would meet to think about some things that might be helpful for the medical school. It evolved as I began understanding and gaining more insights into the needs of the medical students.”

Elena D. Bissell, MD, an associate professor in the UNM Department of Family & Community Medicine, traces wanting to be a physician from her family’s experience with their GP when she was a child. “He was an integral part of our lives,” she says. “He delivered babies and he helped my dad receive the specialty care he needed when he developed a chronic medical condition.”

Paying for medical school as a first-generation student required “lots and lots of loans,” she says. “Receiving the LTSS scholarship helped.”


Elena Bissell, MD
He was an integral part of our lives. He delivered babies and he helped my dad receive the specialty care he needed when he developed a chronic medical condition.
Elena Bissell, MD

While there are various levels of benefits that come from giving tiers, any donation to the medical school brings with it admission to LTSS, says Ashley Salazar, the School of Medicine’s chief advancement and external relations officer.

Any gift in any amount to a School of Medicine scholarship fund is valued and recognized by La Tierra Sagrada Society. “Our motto is, ‘When you give, you belong,’” she says. “La Tierra Sagrada celebrates that small universe that understands what our students are going through.”        

 In the end, it all comes back to helping students stay afloat financially as they make their journey to become physicians.

Roth looks back fondly on the awards dinners that the society hosted through the years.

“They would always have me sit at a table with a scholarship recipient and his or her parents,” he says. “I would get to hear their stories and how completely and enthusiastically grateful they were to receive the financial support and how it was helping get through medical school.

“It was always an exhilarating moment to sit and listen to each family history, to hear the degree of passion students had for medicine in general and how grateful they were to receive this additional support.”

Categories: Diversity, Education, School of Medicine, Top Stories