USC University of Southern California

Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC

A Moment of Joy

Alexander Alcaraz PEDO ’07 (Photo by Hannah Benet)

Three Ostrow faculty members have been awarded grants to pay off their student debt, so they can continue to inspire generations of dental students to give back to underserved communities.

BY MICHELLE McCARTHY

On a recent evening in the home of Alexander Alcaraz PEDO ’07, there was a sudden eruption of emotion. His two daughters, ages 5 and 8, ran into the room where their parents were to find out what the commotion was all about.

“They were like, ‘Why are you screaming and laughing in here?,’” recalls the assistant professor of clinical dentistry and interim director of the advanced program in pediatric dentistry. “They didn’t quite understand what was going on, but they were thrilled that we were thrilled.”

The cause for the celebration? Alcaraz had just told his wife that he was one of three Ostrow faculty members who had been awarded a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant to pay off his educational loans over five years. The other recipients were Mehdi Mohammadi DDS ’12, MS ’18, and Sanaz “Sunny” Fereshteh DDS ’09.

The HRSA grants were given as part of an effort to attract and retain the best faculty and award those working with underserved communities. “We greatly appreciate the skills our faculty bring to the school and the commitment they show to our students, but many have tremendous student loan debts that burden them and their families,” says Niel Nathason, associate professor emeritus, who helped bring the grant to fruition. “This project is one way of helping some of our exemplary faculty.”

NOW IN THE MARKET FOR A HOUSE

After working at a private practice for five years and finding it a bit monotonous, Alcaraz started teaching one day a week at USC and fell in love with it. “With teaching, I’m constantly being pushed to be on top of my game,” he says. “I feel like I’m giving back and helping the future of pediatric dentistry like my mentors did for me. Also, we serve a lot of patients at the hospital on Medicare. There’s a different level of appreciation they have for the care we’re providing than I got in private practice.”

Thanks to the loan repayment, Alcaraz and his wife are now in the market to buy a home. “We haven’t been able to afford that up to this point,” he says.

Mehdi Mohammadi DDS ’12, MS ’18 (Photo by Hannah Benet)

TIME FOR MORE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Mohammadi, director of the JWCH Dental Clinic on Skid Row, says the stress of the years it was going to take to pay back his student loan was always in the back of his mind. “The burden is something you feel on a daily basis. If you want to plan for any enjoyment, or travel, or want to buy things for the family, you always have to keep in mind, ‘OK, I have to pay this amount of the loan.’”

“I always thought I was blessed because I enjoyed doing dental treatments for underserved populations and, at the same time, teaching our students in that environment,” he continues. “These two elements came together and made it a dream job for me. But, obviously, getting this good news was a very joyous moment.”

In addition to working full-time at JWCH, Mohammadi still puts in a full day in private practice to earn more income for his expenses. This grant will allow him to dedicate more time to his research interests, attend seminars and take mini-courses. “Now that I know my loans will be forgiven, I can totally plan to do something else to build up my career,” he says.

It’s a sentiment Nathason echoes: “By supporting our faculty, professionally, financially and personally, they in turn will be able to grow in their educational roles and stay on with the school. We anticipate having them work with us over long academic careers, mentoring our dental and dental hygiene students and pediatric residents and providing quality care to indigent communities throughout Southern California.”

Mohammadi is enthusiastic about what the grants will mean for future students as well. “I’m really appreciative of the people who applied for this grant and made this available for us because the next generation will know this opportunity is there for them,” he says. “I hope it will make them more interested in going to underserved and underprivileged areas to provide care for people who are in need.”

Sanaz “Sunny” Fereshteh DDS ’09 (Photo by Hannah Benet)

MORE TIME TO TAKE CARE OF MYSELF

Fereshteh, director of the USC Mobile Dental Clinic, was cleaning one of the mobile trailers when she found out her loans would be paid off. “I was in sweats and scrubbing the floors,” she recalls. “Then I see this email, and I squealed as loud as possible. It was just surreal.”

The first thing she did was call her mother to tell her the amazing news. “We were both crying,” Fereshteh says. “We lost my grandmother a few weeks before this, so my mom was very emotional. She’s the one I’m actually even more happy for because she was so worried about me and my loans.

“The night before, she had a dream about my grandmother — her mother — swimming in the ocean and smiling at her,” Fereshteh continues. “My aunt told her that means you’re going to get good news. So when I called the next day, she burst into tears and said, ‘This was from her!’”

Often working seven days a week to make ends meet, Fereshteh says the grant will allow her to cut back on work and take care of herself for the first time in a long time. “I’ve spent the past 10 years so focused on community health dentistry that I haven’t been able to put myself first, or even second or third,” she says. “I moved six minutes away from the ocean a year ago and haven’t been to the beach yet.

“It’ll allow me to take care of myself to last a little bit longer. This kind of job is physically demanding, and I really want to last a long time. So I need to do things like yoga. I need to go running. I need to take better care of myself and give myself that kind of time, which I didn’t have before.”

Even though she might get one day a week to herself now, Fereshteh’s passion is likely to always be on her mind. “I can’t imagine not doing community health,” she says. “But also being able to do it with the mobile clinic is very much a gift. I’ll be honest, even if they didn’t give me this five-year gift, I would still be here. They can’t get rid of me.”


This story originally appeared in the TroDent, the official publication for the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. Read more stories like this in our Fall 2019 issue.

Posted December 2019