The Oregonian: Tears turn to triumph for undocumented Portland State student who dreams of becoming a dentist
Author: Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian
Posted: June 13, 2014

Read the story and watch the video in The Oregonian.

Unlike many people, Eddie Ramirez never dreaded going to the dentist. At age 8, the boy from Troutdale decided that he wanted to become one.

That dream stuck, even after he got up-close exposure to bloody extractions and was hit with patients' spit. As a student at Reynolds High School, where he was the straight-A student body president, he got to work side by side with dentists at the career-oriented Center for Advanced Learning and loved every part of it.

But deep down, Ramirez was afraid he would never make it -- not because he couldn't pass advanced chemistry or anatomy, but because his parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 1 and he never gained U.S. citizenship. Although Oregon is the only home he knows, and he excelled in every facet of its public schools, neither the state nor the nation lists him as its own.

He feared some universities would reject him outright. Worse, he knew he wasn't eligible for federal and state financial aid.

How would he possibly afford college? And even if he did, how would his parents – a truck driver and a waitress – ever pay the $73,000 to $85,000 yearly out-of-state cost at Oregon's only dental school, Oregon Health & Science University?

On one of the lowest days of his life, as his high school classmates entered college, Ramirez and his mother ended up in tears, certain that path was closed to him.

He didn't realize what he had on his side: luck, extraordinary timing and the support of key people who saw in him not someone who failed to be born in the U.S. but who could contribute mightily to it.

Sunday morning, he'll share his story with thousands at Portland State University's graduation ceremony at the Moda Center, as one of two students chosen to speak along with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Eddie Ramirez: An undocumented student excels at Portland State UniversityPortland State commencement speaker Eddie Ramirez talks about getting his official documentation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Ramirez will take students back to the fateful day when he thought his education at Portland State would end before it began.

He had easily earned admission to PSU and even won a $2,500 private scholarship to help pay for it. It was only when he and his mother attended his freshman orientation that it sank in that there was no way his family could pay the rest of the $7,000-plus tuition bill. College wasn't in the cards, they tearfully concluded.

Then his luck, good timing and band of supporters kicked into gear.

That afternoon, his high school French teacher called to say she and her parents would pay most of his remaining freshman-year tuition, and another teacher chipped in the final chunk.

Suddenly, freshman year was possible – and ended up a sterling success.

His sophomore year, President Obama offered certain young immigrants who had entered the country illegally Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Ramirez quickly won right-to-work papers emblazoned with the insignia of the United States.

Merit scholarships and a campus job paved his way through to graduation.

Rather than horde his good fortune or chalk it up to his own worthiness, Ramirez has worked hard to inspire other students from Spanish-speaking homes or who lack citizenship to find paths to college.

"He is very approachable and he always manages to stay positive," says Tania Sanchez, a bilingual PSU admissions counselor who has accompanied him to numerous recruiting events and information fairs. "His story and all the barriers and obstacles he has been able to overcome are amazing. A lot of students take Eddie as an example and say, 'If he can do it, then I can as well.'"

Getting admitted to dental school was never certain. More than 1,300 students applied to enter OHSU's School of Dentistry this fall. Only 75 got in.

Eddie Ramirez was one of them. "He has all the qualifications we look for: integrity, humility, passion and sensitivity and of course competency in the sciences," says Mark Mitchell, associate dean for admissions and student affairs. "And we look for community service, of which he had a lot."

As has so often been the case for Ramirez, however, more obstacles stood in the way. Getting in didn't solve the $70,000-a-year difference between what he could pay and what OHSU would cost – and he still was ineligible for federal and state financial aid.

Primarily for that reason, no undocumented immigrant has ever attended dental school in Oregon.

Once again, however, timing proved uncanny.

Last year, to combat a shortage of rural doctors and other primary care providers, the Oregon Legislature created a program, Scholars for a Healthy Oregon Initiative. Some of OHSU's most promising students would have their tuition and fees fully paid if they agreed to work for five years in rural Oregon or another area federally designated as medically underserved.

So, for the first time this fall, a handful of OHSU dental students will attend tuition-free. A large panel decided who they would be. Students from rural Oregon, those whose parents did not attend college, and those from diverse or underrepresented groups were given highest priority.

Ramirez applied in December and was told he would hear in four to six weeks. Over and over, OHSU officials showered him with encouragement. But private universities had done the same regarding full-tuition scholarships during his college search four years earlier, only to leave him empty-handed at the end.

By March, without a solid answer from OHSU and with a heavy heart, he started looking for low-cost master's programs.

On April 21, notification came: He had won the state scholarship. Ramirez will be the first undocumented student to enter dental school in Oregon.

"I was so relieved and happy, I was bawling my eyes out," he says. "I am able to say, 'I will be a dentist. My dream will come true.'"

In their shiny offices atop Marquam Hill, OHSU officials say the victory is theirs.

"We're really, really excited to have him," Mitchell said. "I think he is going to add an energy level here that is very exciting. He is going to be a leader here, just based on his leadership history at Portland State. And we are convinced he is going to be a very good dentist."

-- Betsy Hammond