Albert Einstein College of Medicine recently announced the establishment of the Nilda I. Soto Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Excellence Scholarship—the first endowed scholarship supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Einstein. The important new financial support will benefit a medical or graduate student working to advance health equity, especially in historically marginalized communities. The scholarship honors Nilda I. Soto, M.S.Ed., the former assistant dean of diversity enhancement at Einstein.
Ms. Soto’s career of opening doors for thousands of advisees and mentees began in high school. “I grew up in the Bronx and took part in ASPIRA of New York,” she said. The program fosters social advancement of the Puerto Rican/Latino community through its support of students taking part in leadership development activities and programs that emphasize commitment to and pride in the community. Ms. Soto became president of her school’s chapter with support from an influential ASPIRA counselor.
“What she did was like social work, and I wanted to do what she was doing,” said Ms. Soto, who is of Puerto Rican heritage.
One by One
The state-funded Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) guided Ms. Soto to Fordham University in the Bronx. “I took a sociology course required for social work—and hated it,” she said. She switched to urban studies. After graduation, Ms. Soto got a job counseling students in Fordham’s HEOP. It was a natural fit: “I’m a product of these programs,” she said.
Ms. Soto went on to earn a master’s degree focused on counseling and personnel services from Fordham’s School of Education in 1978. She became a counselor in New York University’s (NYU) HEOP, where she mentored students like Einstein alumnus Raja Flores, M.D. '92, M.S., who grew up in New York City.
“I was always fascinated by the human body, and after my cousin gave me a little microscope when I was seven or eight, I looked at anything and everything,” said Dr. Flores. When he first met Ms. Soto, the future physician was an underachieving high-school senior. “Nilda encouraged me to study more and hang out less,” he said. “She cared.”
He listened, getting A’s in chemistry and calculus in high school. He was accepted into NYU, from which he graduated in 1988, and then attended Einstein, earning his medical degree in 1992. He went on to complete a research fellowship and his cardiothoracic surgery residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and earned a master’s degree in biostatistics at Columbia. Today, Dr. Flores is the endowed chair of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai.
Expanding to Systems
In 1990, after three years directing student support services at the State University of New York College of Optometry, Ms. Soto joined Einstein as director of minority student affairs, now called diversity enhancement. If a campus committee or student activity involved DEI, she was most likely there. And she directed two pathway programs that connect students underrepresented in medicine and/or who are economically disadvantaged students with clinical medicine and biomedical research: the state-funded Einstein Enrichment Program (EEP), for students grades 7 through 12, and the institution-funded Diversity Student Summer Research Opportunity Program for college sophomores and juniors.
When she became assistant dean at Einstein in 2001, Ms. Soto’s expertise and reputation were already expanding beyond the Bronx. She held leadership roles in the Association of Hispanic Healthcare Executives (AHHE), the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and the Associated Medical Schools of New York. In 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo named her chair of New York State’s Department of Health Minority Health Council—an honor recognizing her many contributions in the field.
Ms. Soto’s Honors and Awards
Ms. Soto is modest about awards she has received for her life’s work; she calls them “acknowledgements.” Groups that have acknowledged her include the Association of Program Administrators of CSTEP (Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program) and STEP (Science and Technology Entry Program and the National Association of Medical Minority Educators, the Association of Hispanic Healthcare Executives, and Einstein.
She leaves behind a remarkable legacy. “I’m most proud of EEP,” she said. “We’ve been able to sustain grant cycles since the 1980s, with our current grant from 2020 to 2025.” She also spearheaded a $42,000 New York State Medical School Student Diversity Scholarship.
And then there’s the Nilda I. Soto DEI Excellence Scholarship. It was established by five grateful members of the Einstein community whose paths crossed with hers over the years: Dr. Flores; Nereida Correa, M.D. ’85, a professor at Einstein and medical director of the Einstein Community Health Outreach (ECHO) free clinic; Shellyann Sharpe, M.D. '05`, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Einstein and an attending physician at Jacobi; Elizabeth Lee-Rey, M.D., M.P.H., a family medicine specialist at Montefiore Health System and former director of Einstein’s Hispanic Center of Excellence; and J.P. Sánchez, M.D., ‘06, executive associate vice chancellor in the office for diversity, equity, and inclusion at University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.
Dr. Sánchez met Ms. Soto as a research analyst at Einstein, and with her encouragement, became a medical student. “She has been an incredible role model, advisor, mentor, sponsor, and friend,” he said. He is now executive director of the Latino Medical Students Association (LMSA) and recently nominated Ms. Soto for, as she would say, an acknowledgement.
“Her journey, her role, and her leadership on behalf of minoritized students made me think that she deserved more than a retirement party,” he said. The LMSA recognition, the Nilda I. Soto Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Excellence Award, was later announced at the AAMC national conference held recently, in October.
We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, like former Assistant Dean Soto. She helped lay the foundation—at Einstein and nationally—for DEI programs that help to address the longstanding inequities in science and medicine.
Lynne Holden, M.D.
A Lasting Legacy
A lot has changed since Ms. Soto joined Einstein more than three decades ago. “Einstein has long been committed to supporting opportunities in the Bronx for diverse students, including our own medical students, but we now are acknowledging as an institution and a society that there is always more that we can do,” said Ms. Soto.
The programs Ms. Soto has led and spearheaded have left an indelible imprint on the students she supported and the institution she has served over the years. “We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, like former Assistant Dean Soto,” said Lynne Holden, M.D., senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion at and professor of emergency medicine at Einstein. “She helped lay the foundation—at Einstein and nationally—for DEI programs that help to address the longstanding inequities in science and medicine.”
Einstein has steadily built upon the programs steered by Ms. Soto. There are now as many as a half-dozen pathway programs designed to improve diversity in medicine and expose more historically marginalized members of the Bronx community to careers in health and science. But as is clear, her dedication didn’t stop once students entered medical school.
“We owe her a debt of gratitude not only for her program management, but for all the individuals she guided to and through Einstein, encouraging them to believe in their abilities, inspiring them to reach for more, and steadfastly championing each one to achieve their goals,” said Dr. Holden. “She has made an impact not only on these individuals and Einstein overall but has helped change the face of medicine by helping to guide these current and future leaders through often daunting challenges. And that is a lasting legacy.”
The Nilda I. Soto DEI scholarship is now building foundational funding. For more information, visit the scholarship giving page. In addition, Ms. Soto will be honored at commencement on May 24, where she will be presented our Alumni Association’s Honorary Alumna Award.
Posted on: Friday, May 05, 2023