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During her freshman year of high school, Ciara Robinson was houseless and living in her car or with friends. By sophomore year, she went through the emancipation process and began supporting herself. Although she wasn’t sure what career she wanted to pursue, she knew one thing: she wanted to attend college.

As an emancipated student, Ciara didn’t qualify for financial aid. When she graduated from high school, she started a job as a dental assistant, despite no history of health care workers in her family.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Ciara laughed. “On my first day, we did a full-mouth extraction on a patient, and I thought I was going to pass out. But I worked there for two years and really fell in love with dentistry as a means of helping people.”

Ciara grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii, which didn’t have many dental services. Much of Ciara’s job involved traveling two to three hours to set up dental clinics to provide care in rural areas. This sparked Ciara’s interest to provide dental care in underserved communities and pursue dentistry as a career.

“I really fell in love with dentistry as a means of helping people.”

After working for two years, Ciara was able to receive some financial aid, helping to fulfill her dream of attending college.

In college, Ciara continued to do community service for dentistry, like volunteering on mobile dental vans and organizing events to help provide dental education in schools. She also worked as a tutor to prepare high school students for college, working to inspire some of them to pursue dentistry. Many of the students were in similar situations to Ciara’s: emancipated or houseless in high school. She taught them how to get financial aid in order to continue their education.

Ciara also continued to support herself by working three jobs during college: a dental assistant, a waitress and a freelance makeup artist. She eventually saved enough money to pay for her dental school application, with the goal of attending the OHSU School of Dentistry, a place one of her mentors highly recommended.

“When you put in so many years of hard work — and are so passionate about it — it’s hard to believe it when you’re finally here. I am so grateful. Some days I sit in class and take it all in. I can’t believe I made it into my dream school, my top choice.”

“Getting accepted into OHSU was the best day of my life. I bawled my eyes out,” she said. “When you put in so many years of hard work — and are so passionate about it — it’s hard to believe it when you’re finally here. I am so grateful. Some days I sit in class and take it all in. I can’t believe I made it into my dream school, my top choice.”

Ciara is now a second-year dental student with an interest in public health. Her goal is to work in underserved, low-income areas providing dental care to the most vulnerable, inspired by her work as a dental assistant in Hawaii.

“I want to give people who lack access to health care the resources they so desperately need” she said. “I want to inspire the younger generation and show them that they can do this, despite where they came from. I never thought I could be a dentist, but here I am. Now I know I can do it.”