The ADEA GoDental team recently had an impactful
encounter with a determined second-year dental school student with an inspiring
story to share. Read on as nontraditional student Carol Gilbert-Orrego, M.S., RDN, LDN, chronicles
the ups and downs she faced on her long road to dental school in a vivid
portrayal of perseverance, courage and good old American grit.
ADEA GoDental (GD): When and how did you decide to go into dentistry?
Carol Gilbert-Orrego, M.S.,
RDN, LDN (CO):
I always wanted to pursue science but it was during my senior year of high
school and the first year of undergraduate college when I realized I was 100%
sure dentistry was the path I wanted to take. I first recognized I was very
good with my hands back in high school when I took a ceramics class. I enjoyed
(and still do enjoy) working with my hands and working with people. Plus I knew
a lot of dentists where I spent a good part of my early years in Peru, so I’ve
always been interested in their work.
(GD): Have you chosen a specialty yet?
(CO): Not exactly. As of now I
want to be a general dentist, but I’m keeping my mind and options open.
shadowed many dentists and I like the fact that general dentists do a little
bit of everything, which fits my personality. Because I desire the freedom to
do a little of everything in my career, I’m very interested in treating the
whole family, from children to the elderly, instead of narrowing my patient
pool in one focus area.
(GD): Do you have a story behind your journey to entering dental school?
(CO): When I was 16, my family
moved to the United States. Before I could start school in Illinois, I needed a
physical and a dental exam. At the time, my family was very poor and barely
understood what the requirements were. I was able to find a dentist in Chicago
who spoke Spanish. I’ll never forget how much he helped my family and me, so
that has had a lasting influence on me.
forwarding a few years, I decided to attend community college because my family
just didn’t have the money for a traditional four-year university or college.
In addition, I was still waiting on my green card paperwork at the time, so I
wasn’t able to qualify for many programs that assist with tuition. During my
time in community college, I had to work 40 to 50 hours a week at two or three
jobs to cover tuition costs and books. Eventually I was able to transfer to
Northern Illinois University and still graduated on time with everyone else in
2008, with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. I was the only
predental student and there were maybe three pre-med students. After graduation
I still didn’t have my papers, which is what I needed to work in my field as
well as apply to and enter dental school, so I opted to pursue my master’s
degree. After a complicated application process and lots and LOTS of waiting, I
finally received my green card halfway through graduate school. Then I was able
to obtain a driver’s license and all the necessary ID cards. Later, when I
graduated with my master’s degree, I had everything I needed to continue toward
(GD): Did you experience any difficulty or doubts while working toward your
(CO): Definitely. People
sometimes ask “Why did it take you so long?” I give most of the credit to my
limited money and scholarship opportunities. Then many years passed from when I
finished undergrad and my master’s and I was beginning to feel too old. I was
working as a dietician, but I hadn’t taken the Dental Admission Test (DAT). My
desire to be a dentist never wavered, so one day I said to myself “Carol, go
take the DAT and apply. Don’t give up!”
(GD): So far, what do you like the most about your chosen profession?
(CO): Whenever I have the
opportunity to work with my hands in the lab or with the manikins. I’ve even
named the manikin and enjoy treating him. It’s nice to think that someday this
will be a real person I get to help.
What would you name as the key to being a successful dental school candidate?
(CO): Don’t narrow your options
when looking at the statistics and other figures. Perhaps your stats or DAT
score or GPA is not what the school prefers, but remember you have other
strengths. I was not on the higher end, but I made up for it with my other
qualities and strengths, plus I shined in my interview. I believe it’s best to
maintain your good character throughout the process and not to rule yourself
out. If you want it, go for it! The worse that can happen is they say “No,” but
the best result is that you’re accepted and on your way to becoming a dentist
before you know it.
What are next steps for you? What does the future look like?
(CO): I want to work in a
community clinic to help others that can’t afford care services. While I was
attending community college, I was paying out of pocket so I definitely
understand the struggle as I lived through it. I always thought to myself “Why
do I have to work so hard?” I had the classic why-me attitude. “Why can’t I get
any help from loans and scholarships?” But all my hard work has turned into a
blessing because I will graduate debt free. I’m still paying my dental school
tuition out of pocket, but at this level it’s more beneficial compared to building
(GD): Any advice you want to share with aspiring dental students? Your peers?
(CO): Don’t compare yourself to
other students because everyone is different. This type of thinking can be your
worst enemy. Always strive to be the best YOU can be. Once we enter dental
school, many of us realize that we’re kind of average compared to all the
students in dental school. I’ve seen some students get a C for the first time
in their lives or fail a class. But it’s important to keep in mind that we are
the top of the top that made it in. So stay away from comparing yourself.
it’s important to have a balanced life. School is important, yes, but don’t let
your other interests and relationships suffer because of it.
(GD): Is there anything else you would like to highlight for the ADEA
(CO): Yes! Be active in the
predental societies. Something special happens when you join groups of
like-minded people with the same goals as you. I was out of school for six
years, so I Googled “predental societies” to seek support from others who were
planning to take the DAT soon. I met 19- and 20-year-olds who welcomed me into
the fold. It was comforting and very reassuring to have that connection.