Meet the Graduates
Natalie Inoue DDS ’18
Dental school has inspired this Ostrow graduate into a teaching career.
BY HOPE HAMASHIGE
One thing Ostrow student ambassador Natalie Inoue emphasizes when she meets prospective students is that the opportunities inside and outside of the classroom are so enriching, it would be a mistake not to take advantage of them.
In her four years at Ostrow, Inoue has done just that — having helped organize health fairs, written a clinical manual for incoming students and worked on the The Explorer, the student dental research journal. She also saw patients with the USC Mobile Clinic and at the USC John Wesley Community Health Institute on Skid Row and treated patients in Mexico, Fiji, Thailand and India.
All of these experiences have given her the necessary skills to work with children, patients with special needs and those with dental emergencies.
A change of course
After graduating from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in biology and economics, Inoue enrolled at Ostrow, eyeing a career in pediatric dentistry.
This professional trajectory changed, though, during her second year in dental school when she became a teaching assistant, helping first-year students in a restorative dentistry course.
“I love being in the classroom and seeing people progress,” she says. “USC is known for graduating great clinicians, and that is what I wanted to be, but now I also want to teach.”
Instead of settling into private practice after graduation, Inoue is headed to Harvard University for postgraduate work in prosthodontics and dental education. She believes prosthodontics will give her a depth of knowledge that will make her a valuable teacher down the road.
“I had so many great experiences at USC, and I am glad I took advantage of all of them,” Inoue says. “I may not need them all in the future, but I got a wealth of knowledge and experience that will make me a better dentist and a better teacher in the years to come.”
Melissa Gerald DH ’18
Melissa Gerald’s parents struggled with drug addictions and told her college was for “the rich,” but the determined young woman followed her own path.
BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14
Melissa Gerald DH ’18 was never encouraged to attend college.
“People like us do not go to college,” her father would tell her. “College is for the rich, the privileged. Where we come from, people just work to survive.”
In fact, all that Gerald’s parents — Michael, a short-order cook and Rhonda, a waitress — told their daughter was that she should graduate from high school, something they hadn’t even done, and maybe find a factory job.
But on May 11, Gerald defies these meager expectations, graduating from the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC with a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene and becoming the first in her family with a college education.
Growing up too fast
Gerald’s road to Troy wasn’t an easy one.
Born and raised in Detroit, her childhood was cut short when she started having to care for herself while her parents struggled with drug addiction and fell in and out of the criminal justice system.
“I grew up really fast,” Gerald says. “Some things that normal kids my age would never see during their entire lifetime was just an everyday part of my life.”
Gerald’s mother and father were both addicted to cocaine and heroine and regularly used around their kids. Her father was in and out of jail throughout her childhood, and her mother eventually abandoned her children when Gerald was just 7.
To help Gerald and her brother, Michael, escape life in the fast lane, their grandparents took custody of them from the mid-1980s to 1995.
“They did what they could,” she says. “But I feel they were far too old to be raising us. They lacked patience with us, and we had to learn a lot of life lessons on our own.”
As a young teenager, Gerald fell in with the wrong crowd, running the streets, dating boys and partying way too much. “I guess I always felt like I was on the back burner, so doing this finally made me feel accepted by someone,” she says.
A new start
When Gerald turned 15, her newly sober mother came back into her life and moved the family (sans patriarch Michael) to California. The single mother picked up shifts as a waitress to support her family.
Away from the streets of Detroit, Gerald saw the opportunity to turn her own life around, graduating from high school and finding work as a waitress alongside her mother, who passed away from colon cancer in 2004. Her father, now retired, has been sober for 5 years and volunteers for a San Bernardino church.
During one of Gerald’s waitressing shifts, one of her customers — a dentist — had some advice for the affable, young waitress.
“He was the first person to tell me about dental assisting and how good I would be because I was already skilled at multi-tasking,” she says.
On that advice, she enrolled in trade school to become a dental assistant — working with several dentists afterward until she got a job offer from the UCLA Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, an academic environment that would change her life trajectory forever.
“I was surrounded by people I had never encountered before,” she says. “They took pride in their careers. They didn’t look at a job as a way to simply pay the bills but as something that provided a sense of fulfillment.”
Fight on! — no matter what
Inspired by the experience — and bolstered by the support of her colleagues who “saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself” — Gerald decided to pursue a career in dental hygiene. She completed her first two years at a community college before transferring to USC in 2016 to finish her bachelor’s degree.
“USC has developed in me a true passion for dentistry,” she says. “I never looked at dentistry as being an art, but USC has shown me it truly is.”
After Commencement, Gerald plans to begin working for a practice in Central Los Angeles and is considering pursuing a master’s degree in public health.
She admits her motivation isn’t entirely intrinsic; she’s motivated to provide a better upbringing than she received for her son Jason, 15, and her daughter, Jasmine, who was born in 2000 a 3-pound preemie with cerebral palsy
“She is such an inspiration for me,” Gerald says of her now 18-year-old daughter. “My drive in life to beat the odds does not compare to the odds she needs to beat.” She adds her son is a great brother to Jasmine and a very supportive son.
Gerald also has some advice for others who might find themselves in situations similiar to the one she once faced. “Don’t fear new or different experiences because you never know what positive impact they may have on you,” she says. “And always fight on!, no matter what life throws at you.”
Lenny Mayorga DDS ’18
Inspired by her time in Ostrow’s community oral health programs, this DDS graduate aims to dedicate her career to giving back.
BY YASMINE PEZESHKPOUR MCM ’16
Lenny Mayorga DDS ’18 was the first in her family to attend college.
On May 11, she will take that distinction even further by becoming the first in her family to receive a doctoral degree.
The first-generation college student was never forced to pursue her education or a career in health care. It was a goal she set for herself early on.
“I always knew I wanted to be a doctor of some sort and, in the school district in which I was brought up in Burbank, it was assumed that we were all going to attend college,” Mayorga recalls. “So all the teachers prepared us as such and always made us think big to pursue our dreams.”
Importance of giving back
Mayorga’s parents, Carlos and Concepción, who both have high school degrees, immigrated to the United States before Lenny was born. Her mother owns a day care, and her father is a tailor.
Mayorga said even with her humble upbringing, she’s always seen her parents giving back to the communities they were raised in in Bolivia and Mexico, sending resources and money to the local residents whenever they can.
“My parents came from low-income communities,” she says. “So visiting their home countries and seeing where they grew up has really inspired me to continuously give back.”
Upon graduation, Mayorga will attend New York University for her pediatric residency. Afterward, she hopes to return to L.A. to serve local underserved communities — an interest born out of her time in dental school.
Dream come true
“Thanks to the mobile clinic, I have fallen in love with doing community dentistry, giving back to low-income communities or just communities that really need health care.”
For Mayorga — who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from California State University-Northridge — attending Ostrow for dental school was a dream come true.
“I worked hard to get into USC for dental school,” Mayorga says. “It was my top choice so when I got my interview at Ostrow, I was like ‘Oh my god, this is it!’”
“Now I feel confident and prepared to move on with my career but I’m also a little sad to leave!”
Matt Firestone DDS ’18
The Class of 2018 graduate will take the skills he’s gained during dental school to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14
Matt Firestone is a long way from home.
The Alabama-native left behind small-town life (his hometown had just one stop sign until recently when it became a stoplight) to study at Ostrow in a sprawling city of millions.
“What sold me on USC was how much experience they said we would get. They told us Ostrow is all about handskills and clinical abilities,” says Firestone, who had three dental schools to choose from.
In early May, Firestone will toss his cap into the air and prepare to begin the next chapter in his life, pursuing an advanced education in general dentistry for a year and then serving in the U.S. Army for four more as part of the Health Professions Scholarship Program.
“Military was always in the plans somewhere,” Firstone says. “It’s a family tradition. Every male in my family has served. I got lucky that I could do both — serve and practice dentistry.”
Working with his hands
Firestone first became interested in dentistry as a college freshman. While shadowing his uncle at his dental practice, he saw the career was more than just “drilling and filling” and that it required use of his hands — important for Firestone, who had always enjoyed woodworking and carpentry.
“It encompassed everything I wanted to do — helping out, providing medical treatment and building with my hands,” he explains.
Firestone finished his bachelor’s degree at Jacksonville State University, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, before joining the Trojan Dental Family in 2014.
As he reflects on his time in dental school, he says the school’s best asset is its faculty. “USC has so many clinicians, and they love to teach,” he says. “They don’t just give you a simple answer. They give you the answer you were looking for plus a lot more information to build on it. I feel like that has been more valuable than any lecture I have sat through.”