Student breaks language barriers in dental hygiene program

Published: May. 14, 2023 at 6:19 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - When obtaining higher education seems impossible and out of reach – one may think to give up. But one student not only rose to the challenge but went above and beyond. Ashley Rodriguez-Zacarias broke barriers for the Spanish-speaking community at Virginia Western Community College.

At just three years old, Rodriguez-Zacarias and her family left their home in Guatemala.

“You don’t have a place of your own. You don’t have a car or anything,” explained Rodriguez-Zacarias. “Just those hardships,I think, shaped who I am today.”

During COVID – she was accepted into the Dental Hygiene Program at VWCC. But her renewal for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, was taking too long to process.

“So, I would have to pay out-of-state tuition even though I have lived in Virginia for a long time,” added Rodriguez-Zacarias. “So, that was really hard on me because there is no savings, there’s no money and I am a first-generation, so I don’t even know the first steps to anything.”

After doing extensive research and working with the college, she was able to figure it out. Rodriguez-Zacarias not only attended but she excelled and was selected as the commencement student speaker.

Professor Colleen McGowan says in her 20 years of teaching, Rodriguez-Zacarias was the first student she felt inspired to nominate.

“The dental hygiene program is challenging; it’s a difficult program. And students often spend their time just getting through it,” explained McGowan. ”But Ashley chose to not only get through it but to help people.”

During the program, Rodriguez-Zacarias reached out to the Latino community in Roanoke.

“Many of my patients have never in their 40 years of life been to the dentist,” said Rodriguez-Zacarias during her commencement speech. “Some of them did not own a toothbrush or toothpaste until they came to the United States at 16 years old.”

Realizing the lack of access to dental care, she wrote a paper with ideas to remove the language barrier, such as teaching a few Spanish words to professors and her peers.

“It’s abre la boca, right? And Cierra la Boca,” Open and close your mouth, said McGowan in Spanish.

The class adopted her ideas and wrote a grant. They received money to purchase tablets for translating and searched for volunteers.

“We were happy to give it a try. It made the patients feel comfortable. They were happy to come here,” added McGowan. “She reached a whole population that we had not been able to reach prior to her being here.”

Rodriguez-Zacarias says she dedicates her achievements to her parents, who left everything for her.

“The point to come to this country is for her future. Always I say I want the best for my daughter,” said Rodriguez-Zacarias’s parents.

Rodriguez-Zacarias hopes to keep representing the Latino Community as hard-working people.

“No matter how many no’s. no matter how many people don’t believe in you – you don’t give up and you keep pushing forward and you keep fighting for what’s right, because at the end of the day, all we want is an opportunity to contribute to the economy to have a better chance at a better future,” said Rodriguez-Zacarias.