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Portrait of Gabriela Cortes Cortes in front of green shrubs

First-gen biohealth grad achieves huge 'next step' toward career as a dentist

By Martha Wagner
This spring, Cortes graduates from OSU with a major in BioHealth Sciences, a minor in chemistry and an option in pre-dentistry.

Gabriela Cortes Cortes is proud not to have let any obstacle, including a pandemic or the challenges of a first-generation student, hold her back from earning a four-year degree in the College of Science.

She remembers feeling shy and lonely when she first arrived in Oregon from Mexico in seventh grade, knowing very little English and feeling lost in the classroom. A bilingual teacher came alongside her, helping her feel more welcome and connecting her with resources.

“By the end of the year, I was able to comprehend almost everything that was said by the teachers, and I knew what to expect from my classes and what to do – even though I still wasn’t confident enough to speak in English,” she said. “In my freshman year of high school, students were given Chromebook laptops, which enabled me to use Google Translate to help learn English.”

This spring, Cortes graduates from OSU with a major in BioHealth Sciences, a minor in chemistry and an option in pre-dentistry. Along the way, she’s placed on the OSU honor roll three times and was awarded two grants and three scholarships for her two years at OSU and her previous two years at Chemeketa Community College.

“My parents are always reminding me that I am capable of achieving my goals – even though sometimes subjects are really hard since English is my second language.”

Cortes is especially grateful to her Oregon State advisors and her Ford Family peer mentor for their encouragement and support. Reed Davis, an academic counselor for first-generation TRIO program students, referred her to many helpful resources on campus such as academic counseling, tutoring and mentoring programs, assistance with financial aid and scholarship application, and student success workshops.

Tiffany Bolman, her BioHealth Science advisor, coached her about the process of applying to dental school, offering to be an ongoing resource after graduation. And she encouraged Cortes to focus on her strengths and accomplishments, rather than on her disappointment at not moving forward faster.

“Tiffany really supported me, saying, ‘You came this far, and you should be proud of yourself.’ She told me that she also was a first-generation student and said, ‘I understand you, and know it's hard. I was myself in the same position.’ She identified with me, and I identify with her because she knows all the obstacles I've been through, like needing to learn English and being a first-generation student from a low-income family,” Cortes said.

Because of Covid, Cortes spent only two terms on campus in Corvallis before returning home to live with her family in Mount Angel. While she is sad that her on-campus experience was short-lived, she relished the time she lived with other students in university housing. “I am so glad I had that experience. I will never forget that,” she said.

After graduation, Cortes plans to take two gap years during which time she plans to enroll in a dental assisting program and apply to dental schools, including Oregon Health Sciences University.

OSU graduate Gabriela Cortes poses with her parents
Gabriela Cortes Cortes (center) proudly displayes her Ford Family Foundation scholarship certificate with her parents, Clara Cortes Velasquez (left) and Longinos Cortes Santos (right). 

Overcoming obstacles: It takes a village

Cortes is one of a growing number of first-generation students graduating from Oregon State. Neither of her parents had an opportunity to attend school as children for more than a few years.

Her father became a legal U.S. resident and worked seasonally in agriculture in Oregon before he was able to bring his whole family to Oregon, thanks to an uncle who provided housing for them. Even though her parents still lack the English skills of their four children, Cortes says they have always been supportive of their children’s educational ambitions.

“My parents are always reminding me that I am capable of achieving my goals – even though sometimes subjects are really hard since English is my second language,” she said.

In high school, Cortes asked one of her teachers to help her with college applications. She applied to several universities as well as Chemeketa Community College, then chose the community college when it offered her two years of free tuition.

"I will enjoy making people’s teeth more beautiful and seeing them more confident in themselves if they were not confident. That will make me really happy.”

What led Cortes from Chemeketa to OSU and dentistry? The career choice goes back to Cortes’s childhood in Mexico. “My mom always had issues with her teeth. She was having pain and taking over the over-the-counter pain remedies for it. We couldn’t always afford dental care. After I go to dental school, I want to help people who can’t afford dental insurance. I want to offer services to those people one way or another.”

It was Cortes’ high school teacher who helped her with college applications and who also advised her to apply to Oregon State if she wanted to get a top-notch foundation in science to prepare for dental school. The same teacher helped her apply for a federal Pell Grant.

Cortes started college with a four-year scholarship from the Mount Angel Community Foundation. By the time she was accepted to enroll at Oregon State, she had garnered a Ford Family Foundation scholarship, an Oregon Opportunity grant and two successive scholarships from Kaiser Permanente.

Although Covid prevented Cortes from participating in lab research, she feels positive about her academic experience at Oregon State and was able to participate in both the BioHealth Science and pre-dental clubs.

“The clubs were really helpful. I went to a lot of sessions where we had a guest speaker. It was really informative to have someone telling us about the journey towards dental school and giving us tips on how to be more successful,” she said.

Jakelyn Santa Cruz-Enriquez, Cortes’s Ford Family peer mentor, was, says Cortes, “the very first person who offered me her friendship and support when I first started school at OSU. I honestly think that she made my transition to OSU much easier. And even though she has already graduated, she is still directing me to resources that might be helpful. In fact, all three people have always encouraged me to never give up and to always pursue my dreams.”

Oregon State was one of Cortes top options for a four-year university because of its strong pre-dental program and proximity to her family. “My high school teacher told me that OSU was a welcoming school. Most importantly, it had all of the class I needed to go into dental school. So when I went to my community college, and my advisors asked me which school I wanted to transfer to, my very first option was OSU,” she said.

Cortes’ advice to other first-generation students is to be confident in their capabilities and to focus on taking just one step at a time. “And always look for help. When I first start started college, I needed to look for resources because I didn't know where to go, which class to take or anything like that. So looking for an advisor who can tell us like what to do and what resources are available is really helpful – because those resources are there if we need them,” she said.

Brightening lives and smiles

As a dentist, Cortes says she will enjoy making a difference by helping to improve others' dental health and their health overall. “I will enjoy making people’s teeth more beautiful and seeing them more confident in themselves if they were not confident. That will make me really happy,” she said.

She also looks forward to improving the life of her parents who work so hard, “sometimes Monday through Sunday,” but still struggle to provide for their family.

“I want to make my parents really proud and to help give them a better life,” Cortes said. “It's my goal, my motto, to always work hard and be successful. Sometimes it's hard, and I just want to give up. But then I think, no, I have come this far, and I won't give up.”