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Future doctor plans to use language skills to help people get better access to healthcare

Rebecca Moreira stands in front of the 12th Street Health and Wellness Clinic where she volunteers. Photo by Ben Krain.

As a Spanish interpreter at the 12th Street Health and Wellness Center in Little Rock, Rebecca Parker Moreira sees the challenges medical professionals and patients face when they cannot communicate with each other. 

“In the medical field, there are very few bilingual doctors,” Moreira said. “I think it is very important to build a rapport with patients by speaking their native language. It’s a big barrier for healthcare providers to not be able to communicate with their patients. It’s also a hindrance for the patients to have access to healthcare.”

Moreira will graduate from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock May 12 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a second in Spanish.

To improve her language skills in the medical field, Moreira took Advanced Spanish for the Health Professions during the spring 2016 semester. Students in the class get the opportunity to volunteer as Spanish interpreters at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) 12th Street Health and Wellness Center, a free clinic.

Moreira had such a positive experience at the 12th Street Clinic that she completed a two-semester internship, which gave her enough credits to earn a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She was also elected to the Spanish interpreter coordinator position and is the only undergraduate student to serve on the clinic’s Student Board of Directors.

“My experiences at the clinic motivated me to apply to medical school because I saw the need for Spanish-speaking physicians, and I realized how passionate I was about medicine,” she said. “I want other students to be able to receive the same benefits I have from volunteering, which is why I have worked diligently to facilitate a partnership between the interpreter program at the 12th Street Clinic and the UA Little Rock Department of World Languages.”

Moreira has always loved learning new languages. In high school, she studied Spanish and ancient Greek. Learning Spanish also helped her communicate with her high school sweetheart and future husband.

“When we started dating in high school, my husband had just come to the U.S. a year before and didn’t speak a lot of English,” she said. “I felt like I would like to learn more Spanish so I could communicate with him better. It’s been really fun to be able to do that.”

In addition to being a Spanish interpreter, Moreira is a Donaghey Scholar who works as a referee at Maumelle Soccer Club and a scribe at Anchorpoint Psychological Services. She recently received the American Institute of Chemistry Outstanding Graduating Senior in Chemistry award, the Undergraduate Research Award from the Department of Chemistry, and the Cervantes Outstanding Graduating Senior in Spanish Award from the Department of World Languages.

James Sellers and Rebecca Moreira admire chemistry beaker flasks they were awarded as recipients of the Department of Chemistry's Outstanding Graduating Seniors awards. Photo by Ben Krain.
James Sellers and Rebecca Moreira admire chemistry beaker flasks they were awarded as recipients of the Department of Chemistry’s Outstanding Graduating Senior award. Photo by Ben Krain.

“UA Little Rock has been just the best experience that I could have hoped for at an undergraduate institution,” Moreira said. “Having the financial freedom through the Donaghey Scholars has been amazing. I have been able to help save up for medical school, and I have had a very broad education that I feel that I would not have been able to get at other institutions. Through the chemistry department, I have had opportunities to be involved in research that has shown me a whole other side to academia.”

Moreira has conducted research with Dr. Tito Viswanathan, professor of chemistry, for two years. They are studying how a renewable resource-based waste product (woodchips) can be chemically modified to purify water from heavy metal contaminants.

She was the recipient of an Undergraduate Research Signature Experience Award, which she used to present their research at the American Chemical Society national meeting in March. Moreira also presented her research at the UA Little Rock Research and Creative Works Expo, where she received first place in the Physical Science division and first place in the Life and Physical Science division. Moreira also received first place in the Service Work and Professional Application division for a presentation on her work with the 12th Street Clinic.

Moreira has been admitted to the UAMS College of Medicine Class of 2022, where she will also earn a Master of Public Health degree so she can learn more about the socioeconomic barriers patients face when trying to access healthcare. She plans to become a doctor and use her public health education and language skills to advocate for better healthcare for non-native English speakers.

“I am thankful to the Spanish department for the opportunity to use the language skills I learned in my courses to benefit the community because it also gave me the experience and passion to attend medical school,” she said.