Return on (Community) Investment
“So many people gave to me and helped me chase my dreams here. I want to give back in the same way.” For Aldo Del Sol Martinez, “here” is the University of Louisville in Kentucky. The soft-spoken 25-year-old is in the final year of his baccalaureate program in biology, with plans to attend dental school.
“SMDEP is a great opportunity for any student who wants to be a health professional in the United States.”Aldo Del Sol Martinez
Where he started, however, was Cuba. “I saw a better chance for me in the U.S., where there are more resources than in Cuba,” he explains. “My parents don’t speak English, but they left everything they knew and moved here to give me a brighter future.” “A better chance” and the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) are synonymous for Del Sol. During his 2012 summer fellowship, the aspiring dentist received instruction in oral health but also gained some background in medicine. “SMDEP is a great opportunity for any student who wants to be a health professional,” he says. He reflects on an unending stream of helping hands from the day of his arrival to the United States and throughout his college tenure. “Once I become a dentist,” says Del Sol, “I want to do the same for others—to encourage them to work hard and chase their dreams like I did.”
In certain respects, Del Sol is much like other SMDEP alumni, who number nearly 21,000 and have participated in the program for 25 summers. They all had high aspirations, big dreams, and the need for opportunities to open doors that might not otherwise be accessible.
Unlike most others, though, Del Sol already had two years of dental training under his belt when he entered the program. Becoming a dentist was his dream from an early age, and he pursued it in Cuba before emigrating to the States with his parents. They arrived in Louisville in 2008 through the Cuban Family Reunification Parole (CFRP) Program, which facilitates the immigration process to bring families together in the states.
Del Sol says many health professionals in Cuba feel frustrated because “they don’t have what they need to do their work.”
“After those two years in dental school in my country, I had to make the hardest decision of my life,” he says. “Keep going on this track in Cuba…or resign everything and move on to a new country where I might be forced to start from scratch or discover better opportunities.”
A deciding factor was the lack of resources available in his home country. Even though the Cuban health system is ranked among the highest in the developing world, Del Sol says many Cuban health professionals feel frustrated because “they don’t have what they need to do their work,” he says. “Gloves, surgical supplies—it’s very difficult to work on patients if you don’t have those materials.”
Then again, moving to the U.S. presented its own challenges, most notably the need to master a new language. “When I arrived I just knew basic English,” says Del Sol. “So I started taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Jefferson Community College (JCC). I put so much effort into it that by my second semester I was able to enroll in regular classes.”
He excelled beyond language studies. Although he’s only been in Louisville for five years, the aspiring dentist is deeply immersed in his adopted community. In the spring of 2013, for example, he participated in the University of Louisville’s Dance Marathon to raise funds for the local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital, and in the “Today IS the Day” race to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Laine Y. López, senior coordinator for the university’s Cultural Center and one of Del Sol’s mentors, calls him a standout not only in academics and community involvement, but also as a person. “Aldo is friendly, likes to help others, and is very humble,” she says.
“He works to earn your respect, volunteers whenever the opportunity presents itself, and yet works hard for his education. It’s amazing how he balances all that he does and remains focused.”
SMDEP: Tools and Support
Louisville was the site of Del Sol’s SMDEP session, which he learned about through the School of Dentistry’s Pre-Dental Society while taking classes at JCC. He navigated the application process with the help of his mentor, Dr. Brandon Stapleton, who is a prosthodontic resident at the dental school.
Considering his prior dental schooling, some of what was taught at SMDEP functioned as review. The real value, he found, was in the connections he formed with instructors and other students.
“I appreciated being able to interact with the faculty at Louisville and see how the clinic works,” he says. “Since I was attending community college at the time, I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to really interact with others as a commuter student. At SMDEP, I was exposed to so many interesting people with experiences that were different from mine.”
“Sometimes you feel like it’s really hard to get through dental school,” he says. “But you know you have a lot of people at SMDEP who will encourage and inspire you to keep working hard to reach your dream.”
The friendships that took shape during those six weeks have become a major source of support and encouragement for Del Sol. “I made such great friends there, and we still keep in contact. We stay in touch and help each other out, even though of lot of us are in different parts of the country.”
He’s especially grateful for the tools and support SMDEP continues to provide, more than a year after he participated. “Sometimes you feel down; you feel like it’s really hard to get through college and then dental school,” he says. “But you know you have a lot of people there who will encourage and inspire you to keep working hard to reach your dream.”
Citizenship and Beyond
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of inspiration in Del Sol’s world, with the primary source right under his own roof.
“My mom absolutely inspires me,” he says. “She’s working two jobs, making sure I go to school and get my work done, plus trying to help me out with anything I need.”
“Doing well in school and becoming a dentist is a way to pay her back for everything she’s done for me.”
“Doing well in school and becoming a dentist is a way to pay my mother back for everything she’s done for me,” says Del Sol.
Del Sol plans to become a U.S. citizen, and to make America his home. But his view of citizenship extends well beyond nationality. Upon finishing dental school, he plans to participate in the General Practice Residency (GPR) program, which provides instruction and experience in the delivery of dental care to a diversity of ambulatory and hospitalized patients.
“I also want to apply for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC),” he says. A federal program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration, NHSC connects primary health care providers to areas of the United States that have limited access to care.
“I know it’s competitive to get that kind of scholarship and get into that program, but I want to try,” says Del Sol. “It would mean working in public clinics, or in rural Kentucky—places where I could help a lot of people.”
Creating Better Health Professionals
Asked what he hopes to accomplish as a dental practitioner, he pauses a moment, then says, “Honestly, I’d like to be part of the faculty at a dental school—after I have a little bit of experience in practice.
“I’ve always admired teachers,” he continues. “By sharing my experience—teaching students about values, how to treat patients and work with different people—hopefully I can help create better health professionals.”
It’s all part of what Del Sol sees as a return on the investment others have made in him.
“I have a strong wish to give back to my community,” he says. “And after attending SMDEP, I’m even surer that this is what I should do.”