As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, which honors the cultures and contributions of Hispanic Americans, we had the opportunity to sit down with Hispanic Dental Association member, and College Coordinator for Diversity & Inclusion Activities at Western University’s College of Dental Medicine, Dr. Bertha Alarcon, for a conversation about the importance of representation in dentistry and her own professional journey. DentaQuest is a proud sponsor of the Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Dental Medicine’s externship program, which supports third- and fourth-year students completing externships focused on care for vulnerable populations — including many of Dr. Alarcon’s students.
Why did you become interested in dentistry? What has been your experience as a Hispanic woman in the field?
I grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to the U.S. in 1975. My road to dentistry began when I was a child. Before I migrated, one of my neighbors was a dentist and she let me observe her practice. I remember watching her make dentures and it was amazing to see how she could be artistic while creating teeth for a patient. But, when it was time for me to pursue this career in the U.S., I had no idea how to become a dentist. When I went to my high school counselor, instead of encouraging me or giving me the tools I needed to succeed, he told me my dream was not realistic because I was on welfare and spoke limited English. This experience is not singular to me. Many Hispanic women face similar barriers to pursuing dentistry. This lit a fire in me. I decided to show him that I could do this.
How has your heritage played a role in the work you’ve done throughout your career?
Before joining the faculty at Western University's College of Dental Medicine, I practiced dentistry for over 30 years. When I was looking for a space to practice, I purposefully sought out areas with a high Hispanic population. It was extremely important to me to serve my community and provide quality dental care to those most in need. I also know firsthand the importance of having a role model that looks like you and speaks like you. I created a mentorship program at my practice where students could come to learn about dentistry and see it as an attainable career path. In my time in this industry, I’ve found that showing students the pathway to pursuing dentistry is one of the most successful ways to open doors for Hispanic students.
Why do you think it's so important to increase Hispanic representation in the dental field?
Growing up, it was hard to find dentists that looked and sounded like me. All individuals deserve to have access to the oral health care they need, but accessing care goes beyond having a dental office down the street from your house. Accessibility means addressing a lack of transportation, the inability to take time off work, language and cultural barriers and cost of care. It also means reviving dental education by bringing social sciences into the curriculum so students are equipped with knowledge of structural obstacles in society and cultural differences.
As a provider and professor, can you share any anecdotes about how you’ve opened doors for Hispanic students in the dental field?
Mentoring future students has been one of my greatest joys. A student of mine graduated three years ago, and when he was leaving he told me that I was his role model and that I inspired him to become a dentist. He came from a similar background and my career served as an example for him to follow and helped assure him that yes, he could become a dentist.
DentaQuest is a member and supporting sponsor of the Hispanic Dental Association, the leading voice for Hispanic oral health. It provides service, education-research, advocacy and leadership for all health care professionals to promote overall health of the Hispanic and underrepresented communities.
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