Cristina Gonzalez at her graduation ceremony in Washington, DC
June 12, 2023

Returning to School with Support from the SOM

Staff scholarships helped Cristina Gonzalez earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and better support Inland Empire health initiatives

Author: Erika Klein
June 12, 2023

For the past four years, Cristina Gonzalez, now a project analyst in the Department of Social Medicine, Population, and Public Health (SMPPH) at the UC Riverside School of Medicine, would rush to make progress on homework assignments during her lunch break, stay up until 11 pm to take proctored exams, and type essays over her six-year-old son falling asleep on her lap.


Gonzalez has spent most of her six years at UCR working on her bachelor’s and master’s degrees with support from her family and colleagues along with professional development scholarships from the SOM.

Balancing family, work, and school

It wasn’t easy for Gonzalez to return to school. After earning her associate’s degree from Cerritos College over a decade ago, she said, life got in the way of continuing her education. Pregnant with her daughter and then her first son, she took a job at a hospital and gained a sense of fulfillment working in women’s health and administration. After years of commuting an hour and a half on the train, Gonzalez jumped at the opportunity to continue her contributions to healthcare closer to home at the UCR SOM.

She hadn’t forgotten about pursuing her next degrees. “I kept saying next year, next year,” she recalled. Soon after Gonzalez started her role in finance and administration in 2017, Louise Borda, at the time the SOM’s chief financial and administrative officer, encouraged her to finally take the next step.

“She told me, if you started this time last year you would already have a year under your belt, so just get it done. I'm grateful that I listened to her advice,” said Gonzalez. “When you've been out of school for 10 years, it's really hard to go back, so I'm glad I did. Dean Deas often shared her support and encouragement for continuing my education. I also feel fortunate to have been surrounded by SOM colleagues that continuously cheered me on throughout my journey.”


Earning two degrees with a full-time job and three kids (ages 13, 12, and 6) was a challenge. “You have this mom guilt, thinking I should be spending time with them,” said Gonzalez. “I obviously couldn't have done it without my husband and my kids being understanding.”

She missed a few family celebrations and family trips to Legoland, but said her family was supportive. “There were some sacrifices that needed to be made, but it was short term. And that's what I was trying to demonstrate to them, that it's temporary.”

Reducing debt with professional development funds

Gonzalez also received support at work. In addition to her colleagues cheering her on, she took advantage of the $1,500 of professional development available to every employee each fiscal year to help her complete her bachelor’s degree.

Gonzalez with her husband and children at her graduation ceremony in Washington, DC
Gonzalez with her family at her graduation ceremony in Washington, DC

She also applied and was selected for the Staff Tuition Reimbursement Award, granting her an extra $2,000 for her master’s program.

“I'm really grateful for the opportunity to help pay towards my education,” Gonzalez said. “Having three kids, you really try to see where you can save and whether we could afford for me to go back to school, and it really was kind of an additional perk to going back and helping me finish my degree.”

Gonzalez’s classes were entirely remote and her bachelor’s degree graduation ceremony was held online because of the pandemic. When her master’s degree ceremony was scheduled to take place in Washington, DC, her husband Jose insisted they go so their kids could see her walk across the stage and appreciate the sacrifices she had made.


Looking up at her family in the stands during the ceremony, Gonzalez could see her son waving a large foam hand in support. “It was so rewarding,” she recalled. “And it really just solidified the importance of finishing up my degree and serving as an example for them, that if I was able to do it with three kids and a full-time position, then there's no excuse for them not to be able to do it.”


“It's gratifying to have completed both degrees because now I feel that I can dedicate more time to my family and prioritize them, make memories, but also be able to provide for them,” she added.

A deeper commitment to community health

Gonzalez saw benefits from her degrees--a bachelor of science in business, healthcare management and a master of health leadership--immediately, as they helped her start a new job at the SOM as a project analyst while deepening her commitment to community health.

“The schooling really highlighted the emphasis of working with the community--partnering with healthcare systems, organizations and the public health department to reduce or eliminate  barriers to care while considering the social determinants of health,” Gonzalez said. “It really just tied everything together. Now I'm in the department of SMPPH and this is where I wanted to be, working on that connection with the community, collaborating with faculty, and working with healthcare systems to ultimately help the community and underserved populations.”


After working at the SOM for more than half of its total existence, Gonzalez expressed excitement about the 10-year anniversary. She said she looks forward to continuing to contribute to fulfilling its mission for community health, now in an even more meaningful way through her new role.


Soon after her graduation, Gonzalez emailed Deborah Deas, MD, the vice chancellor for health sciences and the Mark and Pam Rubin dean of the School of Medicine and Sylvia Vasquez, director of School of Medicine Human Resources to thank and share the impact of the scholarship. “This brought me tears of joy and I am so proud of you and your family,” Deas replied. “I am so happy to hear this has made a difference in your life, and proud of your hard work, commitment and dedication,” Vasquez added.


Gonzalez encouraged other staff to utilize scholarship opportunities like she did. “Use the resources offered, and take advantage of the opportunities that are given to us to continue to grow both professionally and in our personal lives,” she said. “Find something that you're interested in or passionate about to continue to grow and enhance your skills. It’s never too late to learn something new because there will likely always be a reason not to start, so start slow if you need to.”