My name is Dr. Melissa Torres and I’m a first-generation Latina-Asian who was born in Boston, Massachusetts. I was raised in a predominantly underserved Latino community. Both of my parents immigrated from Central America to the United States to provide a better life for our family. You may be wondering, Latina-Asian? Well my paternal grandfather’s family is from Canton, China - now called Guangzhou, China. My father immigrated to the U.S. at 15-years-old from Costa Rica and was fortunate enough to complete high school in the states. My mother, on the other hand, immigrated to the U.S. when she was 17-years-old from Honduras and didn’t even complete grade school. Growing up, I saw my mother struggle to learn English and my father work multiple jobs. My father is the epitome of a hard-working Latino. He invested in real estate, became a business partner in a wallpaper company, and had multiple side hustles. He worked his way towards living the “American Dream”. During my early teenage years, my father lost his business and almost went bankrupt. This was a hard time for my father and our family. My dad worked so hard to try and give us everything he could. He re-started his career, as a custodian, to make ends meet for his family of 5. What I love most about my father is his willingness to keep moving forward no matter the circumstance. Although he went from owning his own company to a custodian, he became the best custodian he could be. He loved his job and gave it 100% every single day. Why? Because he did it for us,he did it for his family. I truly admire my father’s grit, resilience, and discipline. Learning from my father’s successes and struggles, I was able to understand the importance of a strong work ethic and what It means to live a life with purpose.
I knew early on I was born for a higher purpose. I know that might sound weird, but it is 100% true. When I turned 15, I was introduced to the world of dentistry. I attended a vocational high school where I took upon the trade of dental assisting. At 15, I started working as a dental assistant in my hometown. I worked after school, sometimes until 9:00 pm, with a working permit from city hall. I quickly became obsessed with dentistry and had a huge passion for helping my Latino community. Working as a dental assistant in an underprivileged Latino community made me realize the need to expand access to dental care. I started volunteering at dental schools and healthcare fairs helping patients who did not have access to dental care. I learned as much as possible so I could make an impact in the Latino community.
One day, while working as an assistant, I had an epiphany: every single dentist I have worked for was a white male. I made a mental note “I need to change this ratio and fast”. As a dental assistant, I made an impact in my community, I translated every single procedure, and volunteered at multiple schools and events. I absolutely loved being an assistant, but I knew deep down inside I was wired for more! I told myself every day, “I am going to be a dentist and I will do whatever I have to do to make that happen.” I had a clear vision of who I wanted to become and why. I was determined.
In my senior year of high school, I remember telling my dental assistant teacher “I am going to be a dentist”. She replied with, “I will believe it when I see it”. Many would think she is the worst teacher for saying that. However, she was the one of the best teachers I had, and I still talk to her till this day. She pushed me towards excellence and motivated me to do more. Although my vision/goal was very clear, I had no idea how I was going to afford college, let alone dental school. I began to have self-doubt. I told myself maybe I shouldn’t apply to college. Maybe I should be a dental assistant teacher? Or maybe a hygienist? I let the fear consume me. I applied to multiple hygiene schools, dental assistant teacher positions, and 4-year colleges. I was in for a rude awakening. Hygiene schools waitlisted and rejected me. I went to dental assistant position interviews and was told I was not fit for the position. It was difficult to deal with the multiple rejections and setbacks. But those rejections, in my opinion, were character building experiences. I needed to be rejected in order to re-focus on my vision. Even the most motivated and dedicated people have self-doubt. What sets you apart from others is how quickly you can pivot, re-focus, and make your next move.
I ended up attending Salem State University and was an average student who struggled with classes. I completed my undergraduate studies in 5 years. At the time I was completely ashamed that I finished in 5 years, but everything happens for a reason! I needed the time to grow and become a better student. I graduated college in 2010 and was not quite mentally ready to apply to dental school. I still had doubts about being able to get in. I had college debt, none of my immediate family had gone to graduate school, I had no idea where to start, I just felt lost. I took a two-year growth period and continued to work as an oral surgeon’s dental assistant.
During those two years I hired a tutor and studied for the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). I would leave work and go straight to the library. I was laser focused on my goal and nothing was going to stop me. While my friends and family were enjoying their summer, I was in the library grinding it out. I took the DAT three times with below average results (total academic averages of 12, 15 and 16). You can only take the DAT three times and after the third time you need special written permission to qualify to take it a fourth time. What got me through those two years was a change in mindset. I had a daily routine, studied day/night, and most importantly believed in myself.
In 2011, I finally decided to take the leap and apply for dental school even though my scores were below average. I had nothing to lose. My top dental school choice was Tufts University because I wanted to stay in Boston - close to my family. Tufts sent me a letter stating my scores “were not competitive enough to qualify for an interview and that I should try again next year”. I only received one interview letter from Howard University College of Dentistry and in my mind that was all I needed to lock this in. I remember my interview like it was yesterday. I was confident and poured out my heart and soul like my life depended on it. This was a 13-year dream in the making. I knew I had to make it happen! On December 1, 2011, I received my letter of acceptance to Howard University College of Dentistry. Many of you reading this may ask how did she get into dental school if her scores were below average? Was it luck? No, I don’t think so. I worked hard behind the scenes and had an extensive dental background. During the interview they felt my passion and drive to become a dentist. I was authentic and gave it my all.
I was super excited to move to Washington, DC. My father and mother were proud, but not thrilled I was moving to a different state. If you grew up in a tight knit Latino family, you know what I am referring to. I think at one point my dad was super dramatic and asked how I’d survive without them. My mom said, “Who is going to cook for you?”. I mean they were right: my mom cooked, cleaned, and did my laundry. My dad paid all my bills. My three sisters were always by my side. I was completely dependent on my family. But I wanted to change that. I knew that if I stayed, I would not be able to achieve my dream. I knew if I stayed, I would not be able to become the person I am today. When making life changing decisions, you have to make the best decision for YOU, no one else. Your family will understand and support you.
I moved to D.C. in July 2012 and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I continued my community outreach throughout dental school by participating in many healthcare fairs, offering free dental exams/treatment and also attended mission trips. Going into dental school, I wanted to become an oral surgeon. I worked very hard to be at the top of the class. I was what dental and medical students call a “low key gunner”. I even did an externship at Med Star Hospital in D.C. and took the NBME/CBSE exam. Although I did well on the exam, I was not passionate about oral surgery. I decided my D4 year not to apply to oral surgery and applied to a one-year residency in Advanced Education of General Dentistry (AEGD). I ended up matching at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine AEGD program in Boston. Did I feel like I wasted my time preparing for oral surgery? No, I learned an invaluable lesson: If you’re not fully invested in something, do not do it! Listen to your intuition! Overall, dental school was extremely challenging and eye opening. It required grit, resilience, discipline, focus, everything my father taught me. My family and boyfriend at the time (now husband), were all very supportive throughout dental school and I couldn’t have done it without them. In May of 2016, I received my degree in Doctor of Dental Surgery graduating second in my class. I went from a below average student, to top of my class. My academic achievement earned my induction into the Omicron Kappa Upsilon National Honor Society.
Nineteen years later, I am a practicing cosmetic dentist. I absolutely love what I do and would not change it for the world. Every day I am able to make a positive impact on my patient's lives. I am always striving for more and setting new goals. Looking back, the struggles and failures were all worth it. My journey has molded me into the strong Latina woman I am today. One important lesson I learned along this journey is living a life with purpose. If you plan on achieving your dreams and vision, I highly recommend you find your purpose. I believe I am where I am today because of it. My purpose and why is the reason I get up early every day and grind. It’s the reason I execute one goal and have the next goal lined up. It is the reason I want to leave a legacy behind. My purpose is greater than dentistry. What is yours?
“My advice to those wanting to pursue their dreams: You must know your purpose/why. Have a clear vision of where you are going and who you want to become. Focus on your PLAN A, forget PLAN B… it’s not an option! Personal development and mindset are everything! If you are a negative person, you will manifest negativity in your life. Stay positive, create great habits, and be disciplined… your life will dramatically change for the better!”
– Dr. Melissa Torres