Sept. 19, 2023
From Dreamer to dentist, Laura Choque found support and success at VCU
With inspiring resolve, recent School of Dentistry grad navigated a challenging path to pursue her passion.
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Making it to dental school is tough. Making it through dental school is even harder. Doing so as a “Dreamer” – an undocumented young immigrant – is truly defying the odds.
This past May, Laura Choque earned her D.D.S. from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Dentistry, but her journey to the field began years ago in her native Peru. At age 9, she and her family came to the United States dreaming of a better life.
“My parents always believed in education, so we came here for a better opportunity, something that we didn't have in Peru. We lived in a really poor area where we didn't have access to medical or dental care,” Choque said. “That is what pushed me to pursue higher education – not just for myself but for my family and for all the sacrifices that they made to come to this country.”
For undocumented young immigrants, obstacles associated with their legal status might discourage even the most resilient from going to college. For these “Dreamers” – a term derived from a federal legislative proposal that never became law – a turning point came in 2012, when President Barack Obama established DACA through executive action. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program offers them temporary relief from deportation and renewable temporary work authorization.
“I could finally stop living in the shadows and breathe. I didn’t have to worry about being deported and ripped away from my family,” Choque said. “Honestly, I was able to have an educational future through that program. If I didn't have that, I don't know where I would be.”
Through DACA, Choque had access to in-state tuition and scholarships, which was crucial since she did not qualify for federal financial aid. Working full time as a dental assistant in Maryland, Choque attended community college at Montgomery College and then the University of Maryland, where she graduated with a degree in neurobiology and physiology. During that time, her passion for dentistry grew.
“I knew I wanted to go to dental school because I loved the profession. I loved the difference that it made, and I wanted to use my background to help patients from underserved communities, similar to the community that I was raised in,” Choque said.
“For me, I only had one shot to do this,” she added. “I couldn't afford to do this twice. Applying to dental school is very expensive.”
Choque decided to strengthen her application by applying for a post-baccalaureate program at UCLA – and she was one of just two students accepted. Her tuition was covered, and she received a stipend for living expenses.
Still, her most challenging undertaking awaited.
“Applying to dental school was extremely difficult and at times felt hopeless,” Choque said.
While attending an American Dental Education Association conference, she talked to representatives from dozens of dental schools. “It was eye-opening to see how many people didn’t know what DACA was,” she said, noting that one school even told her not to apply because of her legal status.
“They weren't looking at me as a person but more of a liability. That was very discouraging. When I was at that conference, I felt really defeated,” Choque said. “I felt very anxious because dental school had always been my dream. I am the kind of person, when I put my mind to it, I will make it happen no matter what. But at that point, I felt like there were things that were out of my hands, things I couldn't control.”
But Choque found renewed hope at the VCU School of Dentistry booth. She spoke with Susie Goolsby, D.D.S., who then was the school’s director of student recruitment and pathway programs.
“She was very understanding. She knew exactly what DACA was. She encouraged me to apply. So that was really encouraging to hear,” Choque said. “I felt like all my hard work was for nothing, but she gave me hope that my chances would be based on merits compared to other students and not because of my legal status.
“VCU was one of the few schools that noticed me not for my legal status but for who I was as a person. That’s why I applied,” she said.
Choque was offered a spot as a D.5 candidate, a program for applicants who show great potential in dentistry but must take several science courses to prove their ability to succeed in professional school.
“It was a blessing in disguise. It was an extra year of school, but that actually helped me a lot because I still couldn't apply for a loan. I still couldn't get federal help,” Choque said.
After a successful D.5 year, she was accepted into the Doctor of Dental Surgery program. Her next step was figuring out how to pay for school.
With the help of the School of Dentistry’s Office of Financial Aid, Choque obtained a private bank loan to help finance her first two years. She said the school’s support system helped her navigate the stress of schoolwork as well as the obstacles of being a DACA student, and she had special praise for former Senior Associate Dean of Student Services Michael Healy, D.D.S.
“I love that man. He was my support system there,” Choque said. “He knew my situation and he did everything he could to help me, and that just meant so much to me.”
After years of roadblocks and challenges due to her legal status, Choque received her green card and officially became a permanent resident of the United States during her second year of dental school. She could then apply for federal loans and finish her last two years of coursework without the burdensome questions of how she was going to pay, how her legal status might interrupt her education and if she would ultimately reach her dream of becoming a dentist.
That dream was realized on May 12, 2023, when Choque received her doctoral hood and officially graduated from the VCU School of Dentistry.
She is now a pediatric dental resident at the University of Florida and is working on a research project with Dina Garcia, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the VCU School of Medicine, examining the relationships between immigration policy, legal vulnerability and oral health outcomes among Latino adults.
Choque hopes her relentless pursuit of her dream inspires other undocumented youth who face similar struggles and obstacles.
“Every time I thought about giving up or not being perfect enough, I just thought of my parents and all the sacrifices that they made,” Choque said. “I thought of all the support from my family, friends, husband and the faculty and staff at VCU School of Dentistry. I always felt that support, and it motivated me to keep going.”
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