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The weight of student loan debt can make a career in public or community health nearly impossible for new dentists. To offset some of the financial burden, the CDA Foundation has awarded grants to select recent dental school/specialty graduates. The CDA Foundation made the decision to make a few changes for the 2022 grant cycle by repaying an awardee's educational loan of up to $50,000 per year for a maximum of $250,000 over five years in exchange for a commitment to care for the underserved. Often, it's the difference that makes the impossible possible.
The program was designed to immediately reduce barriers to access oral health care services in targeted underserved communities and populations while establishing an ongoing mechanism to provide dental professionals an opportunity to reduce their financial burden while working in these communities.
Since 2002, the program has enabled 20 dentists to embrace their dream of working in public health and helped nearly 100,000 patients in underserved communities to receive $25 million in care.
Dr. Tabatabaiepur attended UCLA School of Dentistry and is a general dentist providing care to Medicaid and low-income patients of all ages in Solano County. Dr. Tabatabaiepur is solution based and has big picture ideas with goals to create a more equitable and sustainable healthcare system for all. Dr. Tabatabaiepur is a livelong learner who hopes to get a master’s in public health to further her skillset to help increase access to care for the underserved.
Dr. Sandoval attended UCSF School of Dentistry and is a general dentist in Los Angeles working largely with pediatric Denti-Cal patients. Dr. Sandoval is committed to increasing access to dental services for low-income, uninsured and undocumented individuals. Dr. Sandoval’s goal is to provide meaningful change for marginalized and underserved populations. Dr. Sandoval is proud of his identity and story and shares it with his patients with the hopes of empowering them.
As an advocate for the underserved, Matthew Mecheal, DDS, plans to focus on his personal objective to improve the oral health of underserved communities and minimize barriers to care.
Dr. Mecheal, a 2019 graduate of Loma Linda University School of Dentistry, credits his family and his church for igniting his desire to work in public health. He works as a dentist with St. Jude Neighborhood Health Center, a faith-based organization that provides medical and dental care to underserved communities in Orange County.
Andrea Ustarez, DDS, is a graduate of the UCSF School of Dentistry who credits her personal experiences with oral health care disparities as the driving force behind her interest in community dentistry. She currently works at AltaMed in Los Angeles, a health clinic with the mission to provide care to underserved populations in Southern California.
Nearly 30 years ago, Ustarez and her family immigrated to the U.S. with limited resources and no health care insurance, seeking care only when it was necessary. She pursued her goal of eliminating gaps in the health care system by volunteering at a variety of health fairs and outreach programs across the state. Having spent time bridging the gap in dental care for patients in Ecuador, Jamaica and Honduras, she recognizes that the lack of access to care is a barrier that Americans do not face alone.
“The lack of education, minimal dental knowledge and lack of access to health care is a recurring cycle in my community that has detrimental consequences,” she says. “Information on healthy life choices, such as nutrition, exercise and hygiene, can help reduce their needs and prevent some of the most common health conditions affecting this population.”
She hopes of one day becoming a clinical director and serving as an advocate for underserved communities.
Daniel Ramirez, DDS, is a graduate of the UCSF School of Dentistry and the first dentist in his family. He is dedicated to giving back to his community through the Coastal Health Alliance, a mobile clinic providing care in West Marin County.
His passion for helping others stems from his own experience of facing barriers to care as a child when his disabled mother’s income was below the poverty level. He plans to address health care obstacles through legislative initiatives, local community partnerships and organized dentistry.
“Complex challenges require creative, multifaceted approaches,” Dr. Ramirez said. “Besides prevention, education and treatment, underserved patients also need an advocate who will fight for the elimination of barriers to care.”
Dr. Ramirez’s outreach efforts and community service extend outside dental care. In 2012, he founded Beautiful Smiles, where he remains the coordinator of outreach programs that provide mentorship, education, dental resources and preventive care to underserved Hispanic women and children in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Habiba Ismail, DDS, is a 2013 graduate of the UCLA School of Dentistry. Dr. Ismail is employed at Metro Health Station in Los Angeles, where she provides hands-on clinical services 40 hours per week.
Born in Somalia, Dr. Ismail and her family fled the country’s civil war for neighboring Kenya when she was 10. There, she spent most of her childhood in refugee camps that offered only scarce, basic resources, but she learned English by communicating with the camp’s aid workers.
Today, she also speaks Kiswahili and Somali and is working on mastering Arabic to better communicate with some of her patients. Ismail shared that as a child she was in awe of the aid workers at the refugee camps — they made her feel like she mattered.
Dr. Ismail moved to the United States at the age of 19, graduated from dental school and then worked briefly in a private dental office. But it was only after serving in a community clinic that she felt fulfilled in her career.
“I have seen how taking the time to educate my patients has had a positive impact on their oral health,” Dr. Ismail said, adding, “I can’t wait to start motivating young minorities to pursue careers in community dentistry.”
Sonia Relingo, DDS, is a 2013 graduate of Howard University College of Dentistry in Washington, D.C. A native of Orosi, Calif., Dr. Relingo grew up in the second poorest county in California and attended one of the area’s lowest-performing high schools. Despite these challenges, she graduated valedictorian of her class and went on to attend UC Berkeley, where she became a first-generation graduate.
Dr. Relingo, who is currently employed at the United Health Center in Mendota, is passionate about promoting oral health education to patients from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. She has made it her personal goal to give back through public health dentistry.
“My entire desire for dentistry has been molded by the fact that I would love to provide community dentistry and care for the underserved, and a grant like this will allow me to work with that population,” Dr. Relingo said.
“There are not a lot of financial incentives sometimes for providers to work in those rural clinics just because of repayment, but this award will definitely allow me to continue to provide access to dental services for underserved populations.”
Aisha Amin, DMD, is a 2013 graduate of A.T. Still University, School of Health Management. Dr. Amin said she can relate to those in an underserved community and makes it her personal objective to help improve their well-being.
“I choose to work in an underserved area because I can wholeheartedly identify myself with the patient population,” said Dr. Amin, who now practices at the Family HealthCare Network in Woodlake in Tulare County. “It is my responsibility to see my patients not only improve their dental health but also their overall lifestyle.”
“This is the least I can do to empower the youth of my community and support their pursuit of happiness.” Having had the opportunity to practice dentistry in private offices as well as hospital-based and corporate structures, Dr. Amin said she has discovered her true passion lies within a community health center setting, and receiving this grant from the Foundation allowed her to follow that passion.
For Dr. Stephanie Calvillo, the Student Loan Repayment Grant was the difference that allowed her to work in a low-cost clinic in her hometown of Redlands, Calif. There, in the heart of the community where she grew up, she is able to communicate with her patients in Spanish, something that enables her to gain their trust and explain procedures in a way that eases their fears. And it must be working. Since Dr. Calvillo joined the clinic, her patient load has grown from eight to 14 patients per day.
“We spend all these years in dental school gaining a skill," Calvillo says, "and what good is that skill if you can’t make a difference in people’s lives.”
Coming to the U.S. from war-torn Laos, Dr. Hatlavongsa’s family had to overcome a number of cultural, economic and social obstacles. But even though they were poor, his parents always stressed that their status was only transitional. Their formula for success was hard work, higher education and optimism. And it worked. Dr. Hatlavongsa graduated from the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law, and later, UCSF School of Dentistry. He made the difficult decision to change careers from a successful law practice to dentistry after he saw in dentistry an opportunity to help more people, especially the underserved.
After graduating from dental school, he returned to his childhood community of Fresno, California, for general practice residency training. When he completed his GPR in June 2012, he accepted a job with the United Health Centers in Mendota, a suburb of Fresno, where 50 percent of all the children and 37.5 percent of the population live in poverty.
Where you come from often deﬁnes who you become. A statement truly exempliﬁed by Dr. Ustarez-Oji. As a child, her family emigrated from Bolivia to the U.S., settling in Mac Arthur Park, a rough Spanish-speaking community in Los Angeles. Her parents, both janitors, lacked health insurance. The limited dental work and rundown clinics where they received care left such an impression on Dr. Ustarez-Oji that she made it her goal to work in an underserved community and provide quality dental care to people regardless of their income level.
Today she practices dentistry in the community of Visalia with patients who are predominantly farm workers and the underinsured, and that’s exactly the type of dentist she wanted to become.
The first in her family ever to receive a college education, Dr. Franks’ path to dentistry wasn’t an easy one. Her parents struggled to feed and clothe a family of seven, and those struggles meant that the family moved close to 15 times as her parents looked for work.
But that life in Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond also set the foundation for her future accomplishments. At 26, Dr. Franks volunteered to teach at a summer camp in a rural village in the Dominican Republic and began to learn Spanish. She loves to study other cultures, especially those of her patients at the Brookside Community Health Clinic, many of whom are from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the Philippines. In fact, to better communicate with her patients, she plans to enroll in an intensive Spanish class to become fluent. She also hopes to receive further education in dental public health and in treating children with special needs.
As the single child of a single-parent immigrant household, Dr. Rivera had to overcome many socioeconomic obstacles to achieve his goals. Though born in the United States, he was raised in Mexico prior to entering elementary school, so English was his second language. He also saw that most adults, including his grandparents, were partially or completely edentulous, which helped him to fully appreciate the access to health care that exists in the United States.
Also, to help alleviate the financial strain on his mother, Dr. Rivera worked throughout high school, college and dental school. Being of the same background and sharing similar experiences as many of his patients affords Dr. Rivera insight into delivering culturally appropriate health care. Plus, it gives his patients great comfort to receive treatment from one who not only shares their language, but culture too.
Dr. Ziese comes from very humble beginnings, but her family’s long struggle with social and economic hardship inspired her to serve the needs of the less fortunate in the community where she spent her youth.
At the Diamond Springs Dental Center, her patients are predominantly from indigent communities and some, because they lack access to dental care, travel over 100 miles to see her. And it’s easy to see why. Dr. Ziese doesn’t just care for her patients, she cares about them. Her heart and soul are entwined with the people in her community, and this grant enables her to continue to serve them. Many of her patients are neglected, in foster care and suffer from rampant caries as well as an extreme fear of dentistry. Therefore, she hopes to take an oral conscious sedation course enabling her to offer increased access to care for her patients by sedation and complete patient treatment in a safe and caring way.
“I have found great joy in dentistry," Dr. Ziese says, "but even greater joy by serving those in need.”
Dr. Torres’ parents, both migrant farm workers, always took their children into the orchards when they picked oranges. They wanted them to see how hard life could be so that they would be inspired to dream of something more. They succeeded. Dr. Torres grew up to become the first person in his family to graduate from college. During his dental residency, he worked at the Community Medical Centers in Fresno, where the majority of his patients, many migrant workers, lacked access to care. By the time they came to see Dr. Torres, they often required multiple extractions. Those experiences solidified his desire to remain in the San Joaquin Valley and continue to care for the migrant families that so closely mirrored his own.
Today, Dr. Torres works at the United Health Centers of the San Joaquin Valley where more than 90 percent of his patients are underserved and Hispanic.
“I believe dental care is a necessity, not a luxury,” Dr. Torres says.
As a bilingual Latino dentist, Dr. Torres is able to connect culturally with his vast population of patients. With the assistance of the Student Loan Repayment Grant Program, Dr. Torres is able to stay in the area where he was raised, where his family still lives, and where he is sure to make an enormous impact.
Dr. Navarro practices at the Family HealthCare Network in Orosi, close to his hometown of Visalia. Family HealthCare provides services to more than 20 percent of the population in Tulare and Kings Counties. Since Dr. Navarro’s arrival, the dental clinic has experienced a 96 percent increase in visits, translating into more than 1,100 new patients seen.
“I see no better way to be able to reach out to my hometown community and affect the lives of individuals who wouldn’t necessarily have the means and ability to seek care elsewhere.” Dr. Navarro said.
Thanks to a generous donation from the Maurice Amado Foundation, the CDA Foundation was able to award a third Student Loan Repayment Grant. The other two recipients were Teri Ly, DDS, practicing at La Clinica de La Raza at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, and Alvaro Ochoa, DDS, at the Riverside San Bernardino County Indian Health Clinic in Banning, CA.
In 2007, the CDA Foundation proudly awarded this grant to two deserving recipients, distributing $70,000 to the selected recipients’ financial institutions to apply toward their dental student loans.
One of the recipients, Nam Hoang, DDS, says he read about the grant in the CDA Update, the association’s monthly newsmagazine. “I was already working at the Chapa-De Indian Health Program, Inc., in Auburn, when I read the article,” recalls Dr. Hoang. “I knew I wanted to stay here, but because of my student debt load, I questioned how much longer I would be able to.” Chapa-De serves a large population of local Native Americans and underserved individuals for whom Dr. Hoang has much compassion.
Having come from a family of 11 from Vietnam, Dr. Hoang fully understands the challenges of providing health and dental care for a family. “I care deeply for my patients and insist they be treated with respect and dignity,” said Dr. Haong “It is so fulfilling to me to see my patients smile. That’s why I chose this profession — to serve others. The CDA Foundation Student Loan Repayment Grant made it possible.”
Dr. James Forester, the other 2007 recipient, serves at La Clinica de Tolosa in Paso Robles, specializing in pediatric dentistry and caring for underserved children in the area. Both Drs. Forester and Hoang are committed to making a lasting difference in their communities.
Dr. Celia Mendoza2003 Recipient
Dr. Mao Her-Flores2002 Recipient
Loan forgiveness programs are available as shared by the American Dental Education Association.
Visit the ADEA website to view or download programs for dentists, dental hygienists and allied dental providers.
New dentists who plan to work with underserved populations may be eligible for federal and state loan repayment programs or practice support grants: