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BioSci Alumni Interview Series
BioSci Alumnus: Kristan Rodriguez
B.A. Biological Sciences, University of Alaska Anchorage, 2012
Kristan Rodriguez at UTHSCSA
We all know her, the seemingly perfect woman. She’s smart, talented, hard-working, and has the rap sheet to prove it—thus is the story of Kristan Rodriguez. Although life from the outside is seen with rose-colored glasses, Kristan’s story goes above and beyond and is one of inspiration and overcoming the odds—whether real or imagined. Becoming a successful dental assistant, wife, mom and eventually a student in one of the country’s most prestigious dental schools weren’t easy tasks, however, Kristan climbed her way to the top by surrounding herself with positive people who encouraged her throughout her journey—and if you ask Kristan—it never would have been possible without the time she spent at UAA.
At the beginning, things weren’t so clear cut for Kristan, even though looking back on her life now, the path she had chosen seems to have always been in the plans. Coming from a military family, after Kristan graduated high school, her dad asked her to choose a path saying, ‘Well, you are either going to join the military or you’re going to college!” A sentiment many military children can relate to, but service was never in the works for Kristan and so she chose to attend school instead. Kristan reminisced saying, “I knew that I wanted to travel out of Alaska, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had always been interested in going into the dental field because growing up I had bad teeth and my parents could never afford to get me braces…so I had always been interested in dentistry, and my brother was living in Arizona at the time. I asked him if I could go live with him and go to dental assisting school, and so I went down there for a year.” Kristan made the trek down to Arizona to attend the dental assisting program at the Arizona College of Allied Health, but not before meeting fate along the way. Before making it to Arizona, she made a pit stop in Oregon to meet a friend and by chance “at barbeque” Kristan met the man who would (soon) become her husband. To many people, long-distance relationships seem impossible, but that’s only if your mom isn’t a flight attendant; Kristan jokingly said, “My mom was a flight attendant, so as long as I was a fulltime student, I could fly for free! I would just hop on a plane and go to see him almost every other weekend.” Things seemed to fall perfectly into place the year Kristan spent in dental assisting school, but as soon as they did, it was time to uproot herself again.
Kristan Rodriguez with her classmates
After Kristan graduated from the dental assisting program at Arizona College, life became a whirlwind of activity. In just a short time, Kristan had gotten married, moved to New Mexico, became a dental assistant, moved back to Oregon, had her first child, decided she wanted to pursue a new career and came back to Alaska where it had all began. Kristan’s new career as a dental assistant had taken off immediately but she always knew she wanted more, “I knew that I wanted to be a dentist, that was always my dream, but for me it seemed like it wasn’t a reachable goal with having a family. In Alaska, most of the dentists that are there are older and the majority of them are men, so I was just thinking, ‘Who am I? I’m a mom, I’m a woman, I can’t get into dental school.’ I just felt like my time had passed, so I started back up at UAA and I started to go and get my courses for dental hygiene.” Sometimes the further we get in life, the more stuck we seem to be, but moving back to Alaska and re-enrolling at UAA turned out to be one of the best decisions she would make and would propel her forward into the career of her dreams.
Once coming back to UAA, Kristan found herself surrounded by people who were only interested in encouraging her interests. Kristan started taking the basic classes she needed to get into dental hygiene school, one of which was Human Anatomy and Physiology I with Dr. Paul Cotter, a mentor and friend Kristan attributes many of her successes to:
“I had a couple of friends in the class and we all used to study together. Dr. Cotter was so encouraging, I learned so much from him and to this day, I know Anatomy and Physiology so well because of him…we would always go to his office and ask him questions, and one day after class he asked us what we were going to school for and I told him that I was going to school to be a hygienist, but what I really wanted was to go to dental school. He was like, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’ And I was thinking, ‘Well I don’t know,’ you know? I just didn’t think that I could do it. And he said to me, ‘But you are doing so well! What is the worst thing that could happen? They tell you no?’ At that point, I was getting towards what I needed to have to apply to hygiene school, and so it seemed like it would be so easy, it was easy as a mom, as a student, and my grades were great, but [when he said that to me] I was like, ‘You are right!’ The only thing that was stopping me was myself and my own insecurities.”
Insecurities, those ugly little things that like to rear their heads up anytime life begins to seem comfortable—but with risk comes reward, and with the encouragement Kristan received from her professors and colleagues, she decided to change plans, forget about dental hygiene school, and follow her dream of becoming a practicing dentist. The courses Kristan was taking for dental hygiene were completely different than that required to get into dental school—her decision would mean starting over from scratch minus a handful of classes. Now, you might be thinking, ‘Who in their right mind would do such a thing?’ And the answer was not that easy for Kristan to answer herself, “As my friends who I had been going to school with were getting into hygiene school, I was starting over for a Bachelor’s. It was one of my most insecure moments and I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing? I was so close [to finishing] and now I’m starting over!” In her young life, Kristan seemed to become an expert at starting over and taking chances, so it was no surprise to anyone that she thrived throughout her new degree program for a B.A. in Biological Sciences.
As a new undergraduate at UAA, Kristan began working as an on-call dental assistant at various offices around town. Kristan worked with a handful of high-status dentists in the Anchorage area, including the likes of Dr. Nile Ersland, Dr. Joseph Wang, Dr. Charles Michael and Dr. David Maisey. With a new perspective and a new path, Kristan learned a lot in the years she spent getting her Bachelor’s saying, “It is different when you are assisting because you are just watching, but when you know that you will soon be doing it, you think, okay so I know the process, but now I need to know why they are doing it. I was trying to absorb as much as I could.” The dentists took Kristan under their wing much like her professors at UAA, “With Dr. Cotter, if I needed encouragement, I would go find him and talk to him. That’s another thing about Anchorage too as a dental assistant, when I questioned whether this was something I really wanted to do, I talked with Dr. Charlie Michael saying, ‘Dr. Michael, I am having doubts, is this something that I should do?’ That was my fork in the road, was I going to do hygiene or was I going to dental school? And I told him that I still didn’t know what to do and he said to me, ‘Go to dental school. If you can do it, then do it. Your life is going to be so much better, I don’t see why you couldn’t do it, so do it.’ I just needed a little extra push and he gave me that push.”
Kristan Rodriguez and her children at UAA Commencement, Spring 2012
Kristan had her second child while working and going to school, which some may think would present another fork in the road, but she was more determined than ever to make it work—and that she did. Kristan graduated with her B.A. in Biological Sciences and she applied to some of the most revered dental schools in the country, ending up getting into all but one of them. If you think her time as an undergraduate was interesting, the story of how she got into the University of Texas School of Dentistry at the Health Sciences Center in San Antonio (UTHSCSA) is something to be applauded. Kristan interviewed with the University of Nevada Las Vegas, University of Southern California, University of Washington, University of California San Francisco, Midwestern University in Arizona, University of Colorado Denver and eventually she had her chance to interview with UTHSCSA. “I had gotten accepted into all of them except for UW….Colorado was my number one…after I interviewed there, I remember thinking it was such a beautiful school, the curriculum was great and I was super excited about it. My friend Zachary Barrickman had gotten into Colorado and we were excited about going to the same school. I had already given them a deposit and we [my family] were planning on moving and then I got the interview with Texas…I remember thinking, ‘I cannot believe this!’ because no one gets into Texas, at least not out-of-staters…They only accept a small percentage of students who are nonresidents.” On their own website for admissions they state, “Admission to UTHSCSA dental school is highly competitive…Preference is given to legal residents of Texas. Only outstanding nonresidents will be considered or accepted.” Kristan flew down to Texas with her father and she nailed the interview—she received her acceptance letter in mid-December that year, and was soon on her way to Texas with her family.
Kristan is now in her second year at UTHSCSA and she is stronger than ever. ”School is awesome! I just got through my worst year. As they say, if you are going to repeat any year, it is going to be the second year, but I just got all of my grades back and…I did really well!” Kristan’s work at UTHSCSA goes far beyond the classroom. Kristan is an active member of the Hispanic Student Dental Association and co-manages the American Association of Women Dentists (A.A.W.D.), a student chapter at the University. With the Hispanic Student Dental Association, Kristan has gotten the chance to pay it forward by teaching young parents about early childhood dental care and good oral hygiene practices, something she gains personal benefits from. “I try to help out when I know it’s something that will make a difference and if it’s something that I’ve had experience with. I felt like I could make an impact on somebody’s life.”
A.A.W.D. Members, (Kristan Rodriguez far right)
Kristan and two of her classmates restarted the A.A.W.D. after it had died a few years before she started attending UTHSCSA. The student chapter aims to promote women entering the field of dentistry and to provide resources and networking opportunities so that they may grow within the industry. In the short time that Kristan has run A.A.W.D., members have been able to meet the President of the ADA, Dr. Maxine Feinberg, and ADA President Elect, Dr. Carol Summerhays, and their Chief Executive Director Dr. Kathleen O’Loughlin. Currently A.A.W.D. is organizing many events including inviting Loan Officers to the University to teach members how to start their own practices. The female students have come across some revelations that illustrate the very reasons chapters like this need to exist. In the process of brainstorming events with the Loan Officer the question was asked about how many women clients the Loan Officer worked with and the answer was abysmal at best; she answered, “Well, none…you know, I don’t have any. Women haven’t really come in and wanted to start their own practices. It is just men who’ve come in.” Needless to say, the students were dismayed that this trend is still occurring. Traditionally, dentistry has been a male dominated field; prior to the early 1970’s, the dental field was almost entirely male. It is a new day and age, however, and a gender shift is occurring thanks to organizations such as the A.A.W.D. providing the opportunities women need to make it so. Kristan’s class at UTHSCSA was the first class in its history to have had more females enrolled than males. Just like Kristan has set out to do, the women’s work is making an impact on other’s lives in the most positive way. Kristan said of the work of the A.A.W.D., “Just because women are entering into the profession, doesn’t mean that they are going to be pitching it over or starting their own practices…that is one thing about me coming into school, I’ve already had my kids and I’m married…it’s nice because they can look at me, and you know, my family is doing great here, I’m not struggling and I’m still succeeding, and so they can look at me and hopefully see an example…all it takes is one person to encourage you, like Dr. Cotter [did for me], to encourage them to do what they want to do, and if I can be that person, then that is great!”
Kristan Rodriguez is an embodiment of inspiration and thriving against the odds. She was able to start her life over from scratch while maintaining a wonderful home life with her family and managing a career she had already started. The accomplishments she has made in a short time are nothing short of amazing, and passing on the encouragement to others has been work she is happy to do. Her time spent at UAA shaped her thinking and has helped her make differences in her community—even if it’s not in Anchorage. Despite her distance and the growth she’s made, she still remembers the impact the professors and staff at UAA had on her life, “I had so many experiences that helped me build confidence and get my voice back. I left there feeling like myself. I started not really knowing who I was, and I left feeling I was myself, like I knew who I was for the first time.” We are proud of the accomplishments Kristan has made throughout her academic career, and knowing that our University had a part in that makes the work we do just as rewarding.
Kristan Rodriguez and her family