SAN ANTONIO – Many counties in South Texas desperately need dentists, specifically dentists who represent the patients they serve.
The Hispanic Center for Excellence at UT Health San Antonio is using federal funding to fill that need and it’s helping both students and patients.
As a young girl growing up in Brownsville, Texas, Jessica De la Fuente didn’t have access to routine dental care.
“A lot of the places I went to were community health centers in Brownsville or my family, we were going to Mexico, crossing the border to get dental help,” De La Fuente said.
When she finally was able to see a dentist regularly, her dream began.
“My main goal ever since starting my journey in getting to dental school and becoming a dentist was always to return back to my hometown community and give back to the place where I was born and raised,” De La Fuente said.
Her background, ability and determination made her a prime candidate for UT Health San Antonio’s School of Dentistry.
A federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant allows the school to recruit students from underserved areas who ultimately will go back and help serve those communities.
“We recruit them, we mentor them, we guide them so they’re successful applicants. Once they’re in dental school we want to be able to provide the resources that they need to be successful and to graduate,” said Dr. Juanita Lozano-Pineda, the associate dean for External Affairs at the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry, and director of its Hispanic Center of Excellence.
Lozano-Pineda’s personal experience when she was younger is something that pushes her to diversify the world of dentistry.
“Back in the day, I was discouraged from going to dental school by a dentist that I shadowed. And I felt that as a first-generation college attendee, what you need is someone to support your dream rather than trying to stop you,” she said.
She said the grant provides things like tutoring and access to important summer programs.
Those programs have led to an increase in underrepresented minority applicants and enrollees, who now comprise more than 30% of the dental school’s students.
Furthermore, the school’s graduates now account for 33% of practicing dentists in underserved counties of South Texas.
“Patients, they feel more comfortable when they see someone from their background who speaks their native language, their culture. I’ve seen patients’ faces just light up with happiness when they see, ‘Oh you speak Spanish’. It’s kind of like a sigh of relief, ‘You’re going to listen to me. You’re going to understand what I’m saying,’” De La Fuente said.
De La Fuente will soon graduate and return home to work, bringing with her the power to inspire future young dentists to do the same.
“Just this past week I was in Laredo doing my pediatric rotation. A little girl asked there, ‘did you already get through college?’ I said, ‘Yeah I’m in dental school!’ She was asking me all these questions because it’s not often she sees someone like her in the dental profession,” she said.
She hopes anyone interested in becoming a dentist will contact UT Health San Antonio’s School of Dentistry for information on the recruiting programs.