The Heart to Serve
“I see myself working in a career related to dental public health, with a specialization in oral epidemiology and global health.”
Those words, written by Alejandro Barrera for his SMDEP application, epitomize his desire to make a change in the world. You might even call it his mission statement.
“I want to help people who wouldn’t normally receive help—and do it on a larger scale,” says Barrera, 22. “That’s why I’m so interested in public health.”
It’s an interest that was sparked by a study abroad trip to Ghana, for which he was selected by Texas A&M International University (TAMIU). “It was a service learning trip to get freshmen to think globally,” he explains. “It really opened my eyes to the needs of people in the developing world.”
The spark caught fire at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), the site of his SMDEP session.
“I learned to look beyond my city, my state, even my country. Before, I didn’t think I could be of that much benefit,” he muses. “Now, I know I can.”
If it took Barrera a while to recognize his potential, his mentor at the UTHealth School of Dentistry saw it immediately.
“I had the privilege to meet Alex at a Pre-Dental Society meeting when he was a freshman at TAMIU,” says Philip Pierpont, DDS, the associate dean for student and alumni affairs at UTHealth and the SMDEP site’s co-director. “It was clear from that meeting that he held special promise and truly had the heart to serve.”
Pierpont is enthusiastic in his praise for the first-year dental student, pointing to all that Barrera has accomplished already—including service as president of the Pre-Dental Society and a student government senator at TAMIU. As an undergraduate, he was president of the Model UN Society of South Texas, secretary of the Association of International Students, and an SMDEP Ambassador. In addition, he was invited into the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society, and he became one of TAMIU’s student mentors, which he says taught him how to work with different types of people—from straight ‘A’ students to those who felt overwhelmed and confused. Somehow, he also found time to work as a dental assistant at a community health center.
Kristen Standage, director of the Advising and Mentoring Center at TAMIU, was equally impressed. “He came in with such a quiet presence but made a strong impact on the freshman students he worked with, and on his fellow mentors as well,” she says.
“I watched him change his career focus over the time that I was fortunate enough to work with him,” adds Standage, who calls Barrera one of her favorite students. “He started out pursuing a dental program, but then developed a broader world view and began to see his place in a much more global context.”
It’s his embrace of the larger perspective that will allow Barrera to have an equally strong effect on his community, says Pierpont. “Alex will make a huge impact providing oral health care services, as well as building the community through selfless giving of his leadership and mentoring skills.”
For Barrera, “community” is a complicated thing. Born and raised in Laredo, Texas, he divided much of his childhood between his hometown and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, birthplace of his grandparents and home to his extended family.
Los Dos Laredos, as the two towns are often called, sit less than three miles apart, separated only by the Rio Grande—a geographical attribute that makes the predominantly Hispanic Laredo the principal point of entry from the U.S. into Mexico. Going “across,” as Barrera calls it, was as routine as driving from Virginia to Maryland. “We used to travel back and forth on the weekends, for weddings and birthday parties. I didn’t realize until later that it was unusual.”
“I knew when I started college that I wanted to go into dentistry,” says Barrera. “I just wasn’t sure I could do it. That’s one of the big reasons I looked for a program like SMDEP.”
The trips became less frequent over time as Nuevo Laredo became a battleground for rival drug cartels. “It started to get dangerous when I was in junior high,” he says. “I still had family there, but it wasn’t safe anymore.”
As a freshman at TAMIU, Barrera worked hard to broaden his community beyond Los Dos Laredos. “I felt like a loser staying at home for college,” he says candidly. “I wanted to explore other places.” He was searching online for out-of-town programs when SMDEP’s Houston site—about a five-hour drive from Laredo—caught his attention.
“I knew when I started college that I wanted to go into dentistry,” he explains. “I just wasn’t sure I could do it. That’s one of the big reasons I looked for a program like SMDEP.”
Finding it opened up a whole universe of possibilities. He was energized by the access the program afforded him—to mentors, to information, to big dreams. “SMDEP introduced me to all aspects of dentistry. During the clinical rotation, I was able to shadow different types of dentists, and I became even more interested in public health.”
“Everyone there was so motivated. They all knew what they wanted to do, and they had the hunger to make it happen.”
The experience prompted him to take advantage of other programs, most notably the Diversity Summer Internship Program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “I was able to learn about opportunities in public health with a great group of students who were passionate about their careers. It showed me that there are many different ways I can combine my interests.”
It also sensitized him to the need for greater diversity in post-secondary health education. “There are big groups of underrepresented students [at UTHealth], but not as many as I’d like,” he says. The first week of classes put the disparity into sharp relief.
“We had a lecture on cultural diversity, and there was an assignment where we had to segregate ourselves into our own cultural group and make a presentation about our culture. It was a little awkward because there just weren’t that many of us.”
The first member of his family to attend college, Barrera confronted the financial obstacles facing many students from underserved populations. But being both resourceful and a good student has enabled him to cover the majority of his college and dental school expenses through scholarships and employment.
He applied for and received a Texas B-On-Time (BOT) Loan, a zero-interest loan that may be forgiven if the student graduates and meets the program’s academic and financial requirements. Barrera met them, and the loan—which paid for all four years of his undergraduate education—became, in effect, a retroactive scholarship.
The high cost of dental school worried his parents, who were concerned about the debt their son would likely incur. Barrera found a solution that meshed with his desire to “help people who wouldn’t normally receive help”: the federally funded National Health Service Corps scholarship, which will pay his dental school tuition, books, and living costs in exchange for several years of service in an underrepresented community upon graduation.
Barrera welcomes the opportunity to serve, and to delve further into public health and health policy. He’s currently in the early stages of applying for an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship; if selected, he’ll partner with a community-based organization to, in the Fellowship’s words, “create and carry out a year-long service project that addresses unmet health needs” in vulnerable communities. “I’m brainstorming projects for that now,” he says with enthusiasm. The selections will be made next year.
“Don’t give up because you think other people are better than you. You can accomplish great things.”
Until then, Barrera is absorbing all he can about his chosen field and shoring up his peers. “A lot of them don’t feel motivated. I try to show them good outcomes and give them the drive to find out what opportunities are out there for them.”
His advice to aspiring health professionals flows from his own experience. “Don’t be afraid,” he urges them. “Don’t give up because you think other people are better than you. You can accomplish great things.”