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Bruno Salas Garcia sitting on the steps outside of Kidder Hall.

Microbiology graduate gives back to communities that have shaped him

By Grace Peterman
Oregon State is ten times the size of Bruno Salas Garcia's home town, but he's made an impact in both places with his commitment to community advocacy. 

Bruno Salas Garcia almost didn’t come to Oregon State. “I finished my application probably a week before moving into the dorm,” the Microbiology graduate said. 

Salas was all set to go to the Oregon Institute of Technology dental hygiene program in Klamath Falls, Oregon, but as the school year approached, “I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right,” he said. His supportive and understanding parents encouraged him to trust his own judgement.

Aware that a four-year university would give him more career flexibility, Salas decided to make the switch. “I’m glad I took that leap of faith to come to OSU, even though it was late in the application cycle,” he said. “I still feel that it was the right decision.”

Getting involved makes all the difference

Once at Oregon State, Salas looked for a major that would prepare him for dental school but could also apply to other healthcare careers if his goals changed. He chose microbiology, because viruses, bacteria and other microbes sounded interesting, and he knew that many of the prerequisite courses for dental school were built into the major.

Salas had always done well in science classes and took coursework at community college in during high school. However, intro science coursework at OSU initially caught him off guard.

“Day one, the professor was like, ‘Oh you probably all already learned this, I’ll just go through it quickly.’ I was like, ‘no, I haven’t!’” Salas said. Not used to having to ask for extra help, he quickly became overwhelmed by his coursework.

“In high school, even though my teachers were great, I didn’t have a lot of direction,” he said. “I didn’t know how to ask for help. I always just did well, and they told me, ‘you’re doing great, just keep it up!’”

Salas’ first term at OSU was a challenge. Sacrificing sleep to catch up on all the new material, he entered survival mode. Although he had a few friends to rely on, overall he felt disconnected from the OSU community. “I was a little isolated. I was kind of just doing what I had to, to survive, in this mindset of, ‘I have to do everything myself.’”

A feeling of isolation was exacerbated by the fact that Salas was far from home and in a town many times larger than where he grew up. In Irrigon, a small town of 2,000 people that is four hours from Corvallis, Garcia’s graduating high school class had 40 people. Introduory science courses at OSU may have as many 500 students. Although many resources and programs exist to give students individualized attention, like the Learning Assistant program, it can be difficult to ask for help if you’re already feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

By a stroke of luck, someone from Salas’ high school happened to be living on the same floor his first year. This friend was part of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).

OSU’s federally funded program that supports students from migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds during their first year in college. CAMP provides advising, mentoring, health services, financial assistance, social activities and more.

Salas' friend recommended he join CAMP, too. “I thought ‘Yeah ok, I’m not going to do this. I’ll just go and humor them,’” Salas said. “Besides, classes would start in a few days. It's not like I’ll get in,” he thought. He was skeptical that university programs could add value to his busy life. Extracurricular activities seemed like meaningless requirements, and he didn’t want to contribute to anything he didn’t believe in.

Once at CAMP, Salas’ view began to change, particularly through the influence of CAMP Academic Counselor Alexsandra Cortés, who made a strong case for the importance of mentorship and community.

Through CAMP, Salas was assigned a peer mentor who understood his cultural context, his experience as a first-generation college student and the difficulties of transitioning from a rural, small town to a large public university. Getting involved with CAMP increased Salas’ sense of ownership of his college experience. “CAMP helped me feel more at home at Oregon State, and from there, it gave me the confidence to go and try all these other things,” he said.

“I get to help, in the same way I was helped so many years ago. I’m glad to be able to give back to the program that gave me so much early on.”

In the years to come, Salas got connected to the resources he needed for success. He started asking his teacher's assistants, learning assistants and professors for help early and often. Today, Garcia invests in his college community as a mentor for CAMP and a peer advisor at the College’s Science Success Center (SSC).

“I get to help, in the same way I was helped so many years ago,” he said of working with CAMP. “I’m glad to be able to give back to the program that gave me so much early on.”

In the College's Science Success Center, he led tours of campus for prospective students and their families. “I imagined myself being in the crowd,” he said, “If I were visiting, what I would want to hear? I try to get them to see aspects of a university that they want to go to in Oregon State.”

Salas is also the undergraduate representative for the College of Science Equity, Access and Inclusion (EAI) Leadership Council, the team that implements the College’s Diversity Action Plan. Garcia said Goal 3 of the plan is especially meaningful to him: “to create a welcoming college climate to support a sense of belonging and equitable learning and training experiences.” As someone who experienced firsthand the struggle of being disconnected and how it makes asking for help even harder, “I could use my own experiences to help realize that goal, especially with having a sense of belonging and community.”

Human dimensions of science

Mentoring his peers has challenged Salas to get more out of his coursework. Going to office hours paid off in one of his favorite classes, Virology with Hannah Rowe, assistant professor of microbiology.

“I loved the material and the class structure,” he said. “I went to office hours a lot. If I was completely lost on a topic, she wouldn’t just give me the lecture again but would help me conceptualize it better by using my own understanding and working from there.”

Salas has also been a teacher's assistant in the same microbiology classes that he used to struggle with. “I got to see students progress from ‘I don’t know how to use a microscope at all’ to being able to pick out what we’re trying to find on the slide by the end of the term and also troubleshoot their own problems they had with the microscope or material,” he said.

Helping people understand science and helping people through science have always been important for Salas. In high school, he chose this career path because of its ability to make a difference in people’s lives. “Around that time, a lot of my friends had braces,” he said. “I could tell they were a lot more confident when they got them off. People’s teeth have an impact on how you feel about how you look. I thought, as a dentist, I can help people be confident about themselves and be happy with who they are.”

The importance of dentistry was also highlighted by growing up in a small town, where the nearest dentist office was a 45-minute drive away. “I knew I wanted to do something local,” he said. “For me growing up, I thought that was normal. I thought everyone had to drive to get good healthcare.”

Salas’ interest in how healthcare disparities affect rural communities led him to complete a public health minor while at OSU. “I felt that it was important for me to understand what the healthcare system here in the U.S. entails,” he said. “Part of that is better understanding the determinants of health, especially the social, environmental, etc., aspects that have a big influence on one's health as well the structural and socioeconomic barriers to healthcare.”

Eventually, Salas may return to northeastern Oregon to bring accessible dental care to rural towns like Irrigon. For now, he’s headed to a summer research internship at the OHSU School of Dentistry. He plans to apply to dental school next fall and work as a dentist with a local practice.