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Nathan and Luisa Snyder standing outside

A tale of two dentists

By Srila Nayak

Drs. Nathan and Luisa Snyder (Biology ’09)

Nathan and Luisa Snyder (Biology ’09) met for the first time in the beautiful Spanish colonial town of Antigua in Guatemala and have been inseparable ever since. It was 2004 and Nathan, a resident of Sweet Home in Central Oregon, was in Guatemala volunteering with friends at a local orphanage. Luisa, who was born and raised near Antigua in a city called Escuintla, met Nathan during the Independence Day celebrations (September 15 in Guatemala) in Antigua’s lively and beautiful Central Park.

“We talked. We danced. We stayed in touch the entire week that Nathan was in Guatemala," said Luisa.

Even though they were only 18 and 19 and had just finished high school, Luisa and Nathan knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Nathan applied himself to learning Spanish, and made more trips to Guatemala where he spent time getting to know Luisa’s family.

They were married within less than a year after they met and decided to go to college in Oregon. For Luisa, this was a difficult decision. She had already been accepted to a dental program in Guatemala (in Guatemala, as in some other countries, students can be directly admitted to dental and medical programs after high school), and moving to the United States meant leaving that behind.

She was also nervous about going to college in Oregon without being able to speak English. Luisa, who speaks English in a lilting Guatemalan accent, remarked, “I learned English in school in Guatemala, but I wasn’t fluent at all in the language.”

Nathan and Luisa enrolled in Linn Benton Community College for a period of two years. Luisa gravitated toward mathematics and science classes where she could do well despite her lack of fluency in English. Through it all her she never wavered in her goal to attend dentistry school in the United States. Even so there were moments of self-doubt.

“I would feel discouraged thinking it would be nearly impossible for me to gain admission to dental school because of the language barrier.”

A conversation with a career counselor spurred Luisa’s determination. The counselor told Luisa that dental school admissions would prove to be too competitive for someone like her and dental assisting would be her “best option.”

“When she said that to me, my first thought was, ‘Watch me do it,’” said Luisa.

She and Nathan studied and worked hard, transferred to Oregon State, performed well in their science classes, and gained admission to the dental program at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. They completed their residency at West Los Angeles Hospital, and were recruited to join a practice in Albany, OR, by a dentist they had shadowed as students at OSU.

Parents to three-year-old Patrick Antonio and seven-month-old Isabel Rosalina, Luisa and Nathan cannot imagine a better place to raise their children than the Pacific Northwest. 2016 was a big year for Nathan and Luisa as they achieved a long-cherished dream. They bought their own clinic and now run the Snyder Family Dentistry in Salem along with a dedicated staff.

“I just kept doing it alongside Nathan: going to classes, learning English, getting good grades," remarked Luisa.

The duo majored in biology and minored in chemistry. The couple recalled their three years in the biology program as the best time in their lives as students, where they found themselves completely immersed in course work and research.

Nathan and Luisa have fond memories of their work-study position in a botany and plant pathology lab studying maize plants. “It gave us a nice way to combine research and study, and our research experience was particularly useful while applying and interviewing for dentistry programs,” Nathan recalled.

They thrived in their rigorous and demanding biology classes and seized every opportunity to learn from their favorite professors. “We were the annoying students who showed up frequently during office hours and went to all the additional study and tutoring sessions,” joked Luisa.

Before OSU, Nathan admits he hadn’t considered dental school and was more interested in medical school and pharmacy. Luisa, who was shadowing a dentist on the advice of her OSU pre-medical advisor, urged him to do the same. Nathan enjoyed the experience so much he switched his career path and focused on applying to dentistry programs.

When it came to the tricky part of applying to dental schools as a couple, Nathan and Luisa got very lucky. They had several interviews and joined Western University, which was the first to offer both admission.

Luisa and Nathan arrived at Western’s dental program better prepared than most of their classmates for the rigors of a medical curriculum. They were particularly grateful for their anatomy and physiology courses at OSU, which ensured they learned their fundamentals very well.

“The first year of dental school was especially challenging. But I truly believe if it were not for the preparation we got at Oregon State we wouldn’t have been able to cope. I saw many of our classmates from big schools across the country struggle to keep up. As it turned out we did really well,” Luisa said.

Nathan echoes the sentiment. “We asked ourselves what it is we did to prepare ourselves so well. I believe it was the biology degree and the fact that OSU is a really quality university for the sciences."

Luisa, who was once told by a college counselor that becoming a dentist would be beyond her reach, ended up graduating first in her dentistry program.

“Her first rank is mentioned on her diploma,” laughed Nathan. He graduated in the top 10% of his class at Western.

For Luisa, a first-generation college graduate, the key to success has been a never-say-die attitude. That spirit has seen her make a life in America, learn English, excel at LBCC, OSU and Western, get through a tough year of residency while pregnant and, finally, manage a thriving dental practice in Oregon.

“For someone with my humble background, this has been quite a journey. I think the main thing someone needs to think about is to be determined to do whatever it takes to get there.” She looked at Nathan and added, “And having the right support makes a big difference.”