As the child of Mexican immigrants, Mariana Alcaraz, a first-year dental hygiene student, grew up in a household that initially didn’t prioritize oral health. Her parents are from a rural area of Mexico where going to the dentist wasn’t something people usually did unless they were in pain. She was first introduced to dental hygiene when she was growing up as a child in Roxboro, North Carolina. Her parents only spoke a little English, so she was there to translate for their oral health care team.
“My hygienist was influential,” Alcaraz said. “I had more one-on-one time with her, but my parents had a lot of questions. She answered all their questions, and she was great. I loved going to the dentist because of her, and she went to UNC. It’s another reason I chose UNC, too!”
Dental hygiene as a career path
Her parents had also stressed the importance of education, and Alcaraz was told to “always do good in school so you’ll have a stable life.” She enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and decided to pursue dental hygiene as a career, due to her experiences as a child. Alcaraz hopes to have the same impact in the future on other patients like her and her family.
“The goal for me is to work in my small hometown, or a city with a bigger Hispanic population. I want to be the representative for those types of patients,” she said. “For my parents, if they’re at the doctor or meeting with a lawyer, if [the provider can] speak Spanish and can communicate with my parents, it’s a relief for them.”
Alcaraz is drawn to dental hygiene because it allows her to be hands-on but said it’s easier said than done. She participated in
a shadowing program as part of her application process, and she learned new things about the profession from the perspective of the provider.
“It opened my eyes to how people handle their patients,” she said. “This is the reality of being a hygienist.”
Outreach in the community
Recently, Alcaraz has been volunteering at the Student Health Action Coalition (SHAC) clinic, and she enjoys working with the Hispanic patients there.
“What was really rewarding to me was the stories they told us,” she said. “One patient was grateful for us because she didn’t want to miss work to go to the dentist and was grateful that we were open after regular work hours.”
Alcaraz was recently elected as the SHAC representative for dental hygiene, something she enjoys, since she wants to be able to give back to the community. She’s looking forward to her first patient and is excited about putting her education into practice.
“I’m so ready to have my first patient and treat them as my patient. If they are on the lower income side of the spectrum, I can relate to that because that was me growing up.”
A close class
She has also bonded with her fellow first-year students, enjoying their support during fun times and stressful times, too.
“I just love them so much,” Alcaraz said. “Everyone was a stranger, and during orientation week was when we started to get together. We’re a group of freshmen, always together, never separate, even during stressful times, we find time to get a laugh in.”
When she’s not in class or volunteering, Alcaraz is a member of an intramural sand volleyball team, and she said she’s pretty competitive. “We beat every team that signed up,” she laughed.