UVU Dental Hygiene student Emily Parks said the time she spent in Guatemala taught
her more about dental hygiene than a semester in the classroom ever could.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my whole education,” Parks said.
Students from the Utah Valley University (UVU) Dental Hygiene program visited Guatemala
July 22-31 to perform dental work on children living in San Martín. The effort was
in partnership with Global Dental Relief (GDR), an organization dedicated to providing
free dental work for children across the globe.
Professor Karen Preston said she started taking students to Guatemala five years ago
to help them experience engaged learning and gain real-world skills.
“This is a really good opportunity for the UVU students to get out there and see what
the world is like,” Preston said. “I feel lucky to get to go along with the students
and to be able to develop a study abroad program. It’s important to get our students
serving underserved communities, so when they go out in their own field of work, they’re
able to do some volunteer work and share their experiences with others.”
The seven UVU students worked daily in a community gym 8:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., cleaning
teeth, assisting GDR dentists, and educating local children on proper oral hygiene.
“[The hygienists] got to step up and actually do more work than we were planning on,
which is awesome because I’ve only ever worked on two people a day in the clinic here
at school, and being in the clinic in Guatemala, I saw thirteen patients in one day,”
dental hygiene student Caitlin Kerr said.
Because of the remoteness of the area, the students’ and GDR’s weeklong visit was
the first time many of the children in town ever saw a dentist. And due to the lack
of dental care, as well as poor diet, the children living San Martín have severely
deficient dental health.
“These kids have a lot of cavities and a lot of biofilm buildup,” Preston said. “They
go through a lot of dental pain as they grow up, but they’re good to work with. They’re
tough little kids.”
“I was cleaning the teeth of a ten-year-old whose permanent molars were gone,” Parks
recalled. “In the course of four years, they had just been eaten away by decay. The
kids who had been seen by GDR had a marked difference in dental hygiene from the kids
This study abroad program in Guatemala helped the students gain valuable work experience,
but it also provided a perspective change.
“[Guatemala] was my first experience leaving the country,” Kerr said. “Getting that
shock of ‘Oh my gosh, people can’t even brush their teeth with their sink water,’
or, ‘Their toilet doesn’t even flush on its own,’ really helped me. It’s good to get
a different experience from just what we see here in the U.S.”
GDR Outreach Manager Leah Grygleski expressed her gratitude to the UVU Dental Hygiene
students for their willingness and enthusiasm to volunteer.
“It stuck out to me how excited the [UVU students] were to travel and to help out,”
Grygleski said. “They asked a lot of questions and they made sure they were prepared
for anything and knew what to expect in the clinic.
“At Global Dental Relief we have a belief that together we can make a difference.
Not everyone has access to [dentistry], and we have the power to change that. Volunteering
our time helps us come closer together as humans, as friends, and family.”
GDR has a community of over 3,200 volunteers worldwide, and to date has provided over
$41 million in donated care to children in need.
UVU provides an on-campus dental hygiene clinic. Learn more about the UVU Dental Hygiene
Clinic by visiting the Dental Hygiene Clinic webpage.
Learn more about Global Dental Relief’s mission by visiting their website.