School of Dentistry
As a child, Ariel Hernandez was not a fan of going to the dentist.
“I have a huge sweet tooth, so I had like, 20 cavities,” he said. “I was always in a dentist’s office. I hated it so much.”
During his undergraduate years, Hernandez had the opportunity to shadow a dentist in New Orleans. He had dreams of going into the medical field, but he hadn’t found his niche yet. So despite his childhood reservations about dentistry, Hernandez agreed to volunteer at the office.
During his first week, Hernandez assisted the dentist in treating a patient who needed dentures.
“This patient had gone a long time without teeth, and I remember just seeing her face light up when she received her dentures because she said wasn’t so embarrassed to smile any more. She felt a little bit more confident in herself,” he said. “It was the impact that dentist had on her that made me rethink dentistry. I could have an impact on people’s lives.”
The former dentist-hater is now a fourth-year dental student at UofL, on a path to graduate in 2024. He hopes to then enter general dentistry with an additional interest in cosmetic procedures.
“I like the idea of helping people smile and improving their health and confidence,” he said.
Ensuring people feel comfortable in their own skin matters to Hernandez. A native of Honduras, he is a first-generation immigrant to the U.S. and a first-generation college student. The eldest of four siblings, he often felt pressure to make something of himself and set an example for his siblings.
“I want to show that, you know, these immigrants came to this country with nothing, and one of them became a doctor. To me, that’ll be a huge testament to what hard work, family values and belief in oneself can do,” he said. “I’m thankful to be where I’m from. And I am grateful for the School of Dentistry. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else now.”
Hernandez followed a friend and fellow dentistry student to UofL because of how highly she spoke of the program and the connections it allowed her to make. Hernandez was seeking a similar, comfortable place, where he could discover new experiences not only academically, but culturally.
“Something that stood out to me was how accepting people were, how diverse this place is,” he said.
Hernandez found his ability to speak his native Spanish to be a benefit to his studies and field opportunities in Louisville. He mainly treats Spanish-speaking patients – including one patient who drives two hours to see someone who speaks Spanish – and often translates for his peers if needed.
“Growing up having access to a dentist who spoke Spanish helped me and my family get our care. When we first came to the U.S. we didn’t know English, so it was a barrier,” he said. “For me, bridging that gap as a dentist who speaks more than one language helps people get access to good quality health care.”
His family instilled a sense of hustle into Hernandez that has continued during his time at UofL. He has been a member of the school of dentistry’s diversity committee and joined the Hispanic Dental Association, who even asked him to teach a salsa dance class for one of their events. He also does photography as a side job.
Along with the education and activities, Hernandez appreciates the support from UofL as he works his way through the program. Used to encountering obstacles from his family’s experience immigrating to the U.S., at one point he struggled to afford his education and a life outside of school. When he worried that his challenges would affect his ability to continue taking classes, he asked the School of Dentistry for assistance.
“I’m here working, I’m here striving, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to drop out at some point because of my lack of funds,” he said. “But the school was very supportive. Aside from the mentorship, the kindness of the people, the diversity here, aside from all of that, another great thing that I appreciate from is the willingness to understand my situation.”
That willingness to help others is perhaps the most important lesson Hernandez is taking from his time at UofL, and a legacy he wants to carry into his career.
“People talk about being self-made, but I am the furthest thing from self-made,” he said. “What got me through tough times is having people there. Because you can only you can only carry so heavy of a burden before you start to need someone to carry it with you.”
And if he helps people get over their dislike of going to the dentist, that’s even better.
“One (Spanish-speaking) patient told me recently ‘Hey, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be getting dental care.’,” he said. “And, wow, that’s meaningful.”