USC University of Southern California

Jackie Lucero DDS ’17

white coat profile jackie lucero

Once impoverished and scared for her safety, Guatemalan refugee Jackie Lucero has managed to start a new life as a dental professional. Next up: a DDS degree at the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’13

Even after 25 years, Jackie Lucero DDS ’17 still remembers how scared she felt when her family fled war-torn Guatemala for a better life in the United States.

She and her family made the 1,000-mile trek by land, dashing, hiding and walking on blistered feet to escape the bloody conflict back home.

Fleeing under the cover of darkness, the refugees often had to squeeze into tight spaces to elude soldiers.

“We’d have to lay down on the floor,” says Jackie, who was just 7 at the time. “I used to just count the ants coming by on the ground just to keep my mind occupied.”

Once, along the way, she remembers, her family had to hide in a truck, under a load of watermelons, as immigration officials searched.

“I remember thinking at the time, ‘Omigod, I can’t stay quiet. I’m going to sneeze. I’m going to mess it up somehow,’” Jackie remembers. Luckily, she didn’t.

Life had never been easy for the young girl and her family. Jackie had grown up in a cramped, one-bedroom house, with no refrigerator, no running water and a couple of propped-up fiberglass sheets—over which she could hear rats scurrying at night—for a roof.

But it wasn’t the crushing poverty that made it necessary for Jackie, her mother and two brothers to flee their native land. It was Guatemala’s 36-year-long bloody civil war—raging between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups—that made life too dangerous.

There were days Jackie couldn’t go to school because it wasn’t safe.

On two occasions, Jackie’s aunt, a waitress working the late shift, had been shot—both times in the shoulder—by soldiers who thought it was too late for her to be out alone.

But it was when Jackie’s mother Blanca received a threat that her oldest boy would be kidnapped and shot—Jackie says, at the time, innocent kids were being abducted—that Blanca knew she had to get her family out of Guatemala.

The trip took two weeks. When the arrived at Immigration Services, they were sick and malnourished—Jackie’s mom only weighed 85 pounds. Immigration workers offered the refugees a hearty meal, medicine and clothing.

They were also granted temporary political asylum, which made it possible for them to stay in the United States until they were finally issued green cards in 2001. She has since become a naturalized citizen of the United States.

At first, the adjustment to American life was tough as they struggled with a crippling language barrier.

Jackie’s mother took jobs cleaning houses—a job that required very little English—while her three kids—George, Jackie and Alexis—began school despite being unable to speak English.

“We were just completely out of our element,” Jackie says. “I remember they were teaching math. I would know the answers to some of the questions, and I wanted to communicate it, but I just couldn’t. I always felt dumb.”

Her lack of confidence wasn’t helped by botched school projects. She says she often couldn’t understand the instructions. And her mother couldn’t help because her English was even worse.

Time and again, Jackie shed tears as flummoxed teachers confused her poor English skills for apathy—something that sticks with her all these years later.

“That always makes me be like, ‘OK, I want to help out the Spanish community,’” Jackie says. “I want to have my own dental practice, but I also want to help out parents who don’t have the ability to help their kids with homework.”

Even though things were better here than in Guatemala, Jackie’s family still struggled financially.

“We didn’t have anything,” Jackie says. “It came to a point that we would have to find clothes in trash bags, and my mom would boil them, and that would be new clothes for us.”

Eventually, Jackie’s mom got a job at a dental office and asked her boss to give 15-year-old Jackie a job as a dental assistant to keep her out of trouble in a neighborhood overrun by gangs.

Jackie got the job and spent her free time, filing patient charts. “One day, they were short an assistant, so they asked, ‘Do you want to go assist?’” Jackie remembers. “I was like, ‘Yes!’ because I wasn’t afraid to try anything.”

The one-time dental assistant opportunity became an after-school job and then later a summer gig.

After graduating, Jackie was hired full-time. Sensing her intelligence, co-workers began asking her when she was going to school to become a dental hygienist.

Having been told since she was a girl that college was not an option, she responded, “I can’t afford it.” But her co-workers pressed her, explaining she could go to community college.

Their encouragement worked.

In 2005, Jackie graduated with an associate degree in dental hygiene from Mt. Ida College.

It didn’t stop there, though, for Jackie.

“I had patients who’d be like, ‘When are you going to be a doctor?’ and I had dentists saying, ‘You’re good. When are you going to become a doctor?’” Jackie says. “The wheels started turning, and I was like ‘Oh, really? Me? You think so?”

Bolstered by the confidence of her co-workers, Jackie began to believe that she could, in fact, become a dentist. First, though, she needed to complete her bachelor’s degree, something she accomplished in 2013.

This fall, Jackie takes the next step in her professional journey, becoming a member of the DDS Class of 2017 at the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

Coming into the program, she feels confident with her clinical skills. After all, she’s been in a dental gown since she was 15, but she admits she’s nervous entering school so late (she’s 32).

“It’s tough,” she says. “It reminds me of all the disadvantages that I had before. I’m just like had I known better, had I had that extra help, I could’ve done things better the first time around.”

She says she realizes, though, that her background has made her the person she is today.

After graduating, she hopes to open two dental practices: a regular practice and one that caters to low-income children.

She also hasn’t ruled out continuing her education after 2017 to become an oral surgeon who travels to disadvantaged communities, both here and overseas, fixing cleft palates.

She also wants to help others who are trying to climb the same seemingly impossible summit she’s closing in upon.

“I just want to give a lot of myself because I have a lot of compassion,” she says. “I want to be able to give back to those who need it.”

See Jackie and the entire incoming DDS, DH and ASPID classes take the first step on their professional journey to becoming dental professionals at the 2013 White Coat Ceremony on Sept. 9 at 5 p.m. in the Bovard Auditorium.