The Domino Effect
Scholarships Reduce Students’ Debt with Goal of Benefiting Underserved
By Catherine Duncan
A $2.4 million, four-year federal grant is helping the School of Dentistry accomplish two related goals—enrolling and retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds and, by reducing their financial burden, helping them to possibly return to underserved areas in Texas to provide dental care.
Juanita Lozano-Pineda, D.D.S., M.P.H., associate dean for external affairs and the grant’s principal investigator, said the School of Dentistry was awarded a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant with $600,000 provided annually to dental students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The grant runs from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2020.
To be eligible to receive the grant, an institute must have a program to recruit and retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including students who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Also, the university’s recruiting program must have been successful in reaching a minimum 20 percent of the school’s full-time students and graduates who are classified as disadvantaged.
The School of Dentistry’s Hispanic Center of Excellence (HCOE), which also was funded by a HRSA grant, has had successful outreach and retention programs that have greatly increased the enrollment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including underrepresented minorities. This successful HCOE helped the school achieve the scholarship grant requirement and qualify for the grant that provided scholarships to four senior, five junior, five sophomore, and six freshmen dental students during the first-year grant period.
“This federal grant is meant to encourage students who otherwise wouldn’t consider attaining a dental degree because of the considerable cost,” said Dr. Lozano-Pineda, who serves as HCOE director. “Through the center, we have recruited students from medically underserved areas; many are first-generation college attendees.”
The Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students program promotes diversity among health professions by providing awards to eligible health professions schools for use in awarding scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have demonstrated financial need and are enrolled full time.
“Tuition for dentists has increased over the years. Many students graduate owing quite a bit of money,” Dr. Lozano-Pineda said. “High monthly loan payments can prohibit them from practicing in an area that has high rates of poverty. Our hope is if their tuition burden and loan payment is decreased, they will be able to work in an economically disadvantaged area.”
The grant provides a $30,000 scholarship to 20 dental students each year. With in-state students paying close to $60,000 a year for dental school, the scholarship pays approximately half of the annual cost. Students who meet the criteria are eligible to apply each year.
Devon Harris, a fourth-year dental student, was one of the first recipients of the scholarship. A Pflugerville native who received his undergraduate degree from UT San Antonio, Harris said the scholarship will alleviate some of the debt he is incurring while earning his dental degree.
“I am particularly interested in serving underserved communities. The better financial shape I am in when I graduate the better opportunities I will have to help others,” he said. “I’ve been able to see some of the disparities that happen in health care, especially oral care. I hope to be a vessel to improve the quality of care for anyone in these communities.”
Improving a person’s oral health ultimately improves their quality of life, Harris said. “People who aesthetically have a poor smile can see their ability to get a job affected. In my education, I also have learned the connection between systemic health and oral health. Many in these areas suffer from systemic health issues, such as diabetes and hypertension. Members of my family grew up in poverty so I know the limited access there can be to dental care.”
Harris said he is grateful for the scholarship. “It is a major blessing that will help me get closer to financial freedom from debt so I will have the ability to help my patients.”
Hevony Rodriguez, a third-year dental student, also is one of the initial recipients of the scholarship. She earned her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M International University in her hometown of Laredo.
Rodriguez, a first-generation college student and graduate, said she knew she wanted to be a dentist when she began her undergraduate studies. Although she was on full scholarship for her bachelor’s degree, Rodriguez knew dental school would require incurring student loans.
“This scholarship is amazing. Last year, I was having financial difficulties when I received this scholarship. It meant a lot to me. Loans are accumulating, and this helps a lot. I do not have financial support from home.”
Rodriguez said she comes from a low-income area and wants to one day be able to give back to the community. “Not everyone has the money to get dental care. Some people are only worrying about putting food on the table. I want to be able to help them. If I have less loans to pay off, I will be in a better position to do this.”
While a student in Laredo, Rodriguez said Dr. Lozano-Pineda encouraged her to achieve her dream of attending dental school. “She is such a giving person, and she keeps trying to make things easier for students. She goes to so much trouble to make sure we continue our education. She makes you feel like it is not impossible. She makes you feel that you can do it.”
Dr. Lozano-Pineda said she is appreciative of the federal grants that allow the School of Dentistry to recruit from all areas of the state. “The grants allow us to train oral health care providers who will hopefully go back to their communities and address the access to health care issue.
“It also helps us, as an institution, to be more supportive of our students’ needs by providing the financial resources,” she said. “We understand the financial burden of a dental education. We know it can be a barrier for some to become a dentist. We want to help break those barriers.”