Health Disparities and Inequities Inspire San Joaquin Valley Students to Pursue Medicine

September 10, 2021 | By Brandy Ramos Nikaido
San Joaquin Valley PRIME Class of 2025

San Joaquin Valley PRIME Class of 2025

As the San Joaquin Valley, state, nation and global communities responded to COVID-19, health disparities and health inequities were revealed like never before. Long-existing disparities in the Valley have been especially pronounced during the pandemic, particularly the shortage of physicians in the region, the lack of access to medical care, and lack of physicians who come from and understand the Valley’s diverse patient populations and the health issues affecting the region. Students with firsthand experience dealing with these issues recently started their first year of medical school in a tailored track at the UCSF School of Medicine known as the San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education (SJV PRIME).

The San Joaquin Valley is among the most medically under resourced regions in California. UCSF Fresno was established 46 years ago because of the dire need for more physicians in the region at that time. Roughly 50% of the physicians who graduate from UCSF Fresno remain in the region to provide care, but the Valley’s diverse and rapidly growing population greatly outpaces the number of new physicians entering the workforce. With just 47 primary care physicians per 100,000 population, the region continues to fall short of the 60 to 80 primary care physicians recommended by the Council on Graduate Medical Education.

With strong connections to the Valley, all SJV PRIME students call the region home and are committed to providing culturally appropriate care in the region and/or working with underserved populations.  

This summer, UCSF/UCSF Fresno announced the third cohort of students in the UCSF SJV PRIME. The UCSF medical school track enrolls students from the Valley who are committed to providing culturally appropriate care in the region, particularly for underserved communities.

“All 12 students in the SJV PRIME matriculating Class of 2021 call the Valley home and were inspired to pursue medicine by health disparities and inequities they experienced or observed growing up,” said Loren Alving, MD, director of the UCSF SJV PRIME.

The SJV PRIME matriculating Class of 2021 includes:  

  • Adam Alyafaie was born and raised in Fresno, California. He attended Clovis West High School and graduated from UCLA with a degree in biology.
  • Noor Chahal was born in Punjab, India and moved to Fresno, California, at age four. He attended Clovis West High School and went on to pursue biology at UCLA.
  • Andrew Contreras was raised in Madera, California. He attended Madera High School, Madera Community College, transferred to Fresno State and earned a bachelor’s in biology with minors in physical science and sociology.
  • Stephen “John” Cruz was born in Manila, Philippines, and raised in Bakersfield, California. He attended Liberty High School and graduated with a degree in Human Biology at UC Irvine.
  • Pardeep Dhillon grew up in Atwater, California. He went to Buhach Colony High School and attended UCLA where he majored in psychobiology.
  • Rafael Verduzco Guillen grew up in Bakersfield, California. He attended Foothill High School and graduated from UC Berkeley where he studied molecular and cell biology.
  • Mandeep Kaur was born and raised in Fresno, California, where she attended Central West High School and Fresno State. Mandeep participated in UCSF Fresno’s Summer Biomedical Internship Program and was mentored by Rais Vohra, MD, emergency medicine faculty at UCSF Fresno.
  • Bagieng Keophimphone was born and raised in Fresno, California. Bagieng went to Central West High School, Central East High School, and graduated from Buchanan High School. He graduated from Fresno State and earned a bachelor’s in biochemistry.
  • Rojina Nekoonam was born and raised in Iran until the age of 14 when she and her father relocated to the United States. She received a merit-based scholarship to attend Fresno State and studied biology.
  • Alyssa Marie Rivera was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States in 2005. She attended Clovis West High School and Fresno State.
  • Amritpal Singh was born in Punjab, India. He immigrated to the United States with his family at a young age. He was raised in Ceres, California. and later moved to Atwater. Amritpal attended Ceres High School and graduated from UC Merced.
  • Shizra Sipra was born and raised in Clovis, California. She graduated from Fresno State as part of the Smittcamp Family Honors College with a bachelor’s degree in biology.


Now in its 10th year, SJV PRIME started as a collaboration among UC Merced, UCSF Fresno, UCSF, and the UC Davis School of Medicine as the medical degree-granting institution. In July 2018, the UCSF School of Medicine became the degree-granting institution. Students in the UCSF SJV PRIME spend the first 18 months at the UCSF campus in San Francisco. They then move to UCSF Fresno for the remaining two and a half years of their medical education in the Valley including research and community engagement in collaboration with UC Merced.

Currently, there are 40 students enrolled in SJV PRIME, including UCSF and UC Davis students. To date, SJV PRIME has graduated 48 students. Roughly 38 of the graduates are completing residency or fellowship training. Nine graduates are now practicing in the San Joaquin Valley, California or in the U.S. military.

“Our aim is to train medical students to become exceptional physicians and health care leaders willing to give back to the community and ready to address the challenges faced by Valley populations,” said Leticia Rolon, MD, associate program director of UCSF SJV PRIME. 

Seven of the eight SJV PRIME students who graduated earlier this summer stayed in California to provide much needed medical care. Six of them matched with University of California-affiliated residencies. Three stayed at UCSF Fresno to complete residency programs in Internal Medicine, Surgery and Emergency Medicine.

 “SJV PRIME takes students from the Valley; we train them here, offer them residency training in the Valley with the hope they will stay to practice,” said Kenny Banh, MD, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education at UCSF Fresno.