Inspiring Journey of CDMI Alum Highlights Resilience, Contributions of Immigrants

Midwestern University's College of Dental Medicine-Illinois (CDMI) Dr. Vargas’ Inspiring Journey

Dr. Vargas at graduation with his family.

Dr. Vargas celebrates his graduation with his family. 

We recently caught up with José Vargas, D.M.D., a graduate of Midwestern University's College of Dental Medicine-Illinois (CDMI). His inspiring story of triumph over adversity gained widespread attention when his social media post went viral following his graduation in 2022. As a young immigrant, Dr. Vargas worked picking vegetables on farms in Georgia and despite many challenges was able to pursue higher education, studied at the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and then graduated with a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree from Midwestern University.

Dr. Vargas’ journey is a powerful testament to resilience, the support of his loving family, his unwavering determination, and the transformative experiences he had at Midwestern University. As we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month this June, Midwestern University acknowledges the diverse cultures, traditions, and stories of immigrants, as well as the economic, social, and cultural impact they have had on the country.

Describe your current work:

I'm a general dentist practicing at Dental Partners of Southwest Georgia. I handle various procedures such as fillings, extractions, crowns, and dentures, and, I’m currently training to do implants. It’s a fast-paced environment where I work in one or sometimes two rooms, coordinate with the hygienists, front desk, and assistants, and interact with patients daily. The most enjoyable aspect for me is performing root canals because it’s a high-level procedure that not many dentists do, and it provides patients with the opportunity to preserve their natural teeth. It's challenging but rewarding, and the experience helps me grow as a dentist.

Can you share some of the challenges you faced during your immigration journey and how you overcame them?

The biggest challenge my family faced when coming to the U.S. was shouldered by my parents. Once we were here, the major obstacle I encountered was not being on the same playing field as others. Despite having good grades, I couldn't access public or federal aid for education, like the Hope Scholarship or Pell Grant. Enrolling in college meant paying out-of-state tuition, which was more than double the regular amount, without any available resources except for private scholarships. I focused on maintaining excellent grades and applied for competitive private scholarships, eventually winning some that significantly helped me financially for several years.

Another hurdle was transportation, as I couldn't obtain a driver's license for many years. Driving to school or anywhere, I knew there was a chance I could be pulled over and arrested and potentially sent back.

What were some of the obstacles you faced as a graduate student?

Applying for dental school was the most significant challenge I faced. Many schools flat-out rejected my application due to my non-citizen status. Only a few schools were an option, but they were far away. Thankfully, more schools now accept DACA recipients, but at the time, it was an issue. 

After being accepted into dental school at Midwestern, I was so excited. But another obstacle emerged—paying the tuition. Initially, a bank showed interest in funding my education, but they backed out. So, my parents got two jobs, I got two jobs, and my sister also worked -- we all contributed towards that first payment, which was the hardest. Everybody chipped in, that's one of the biggest struggles – being in a different situation than my classmates and the struggles I faced behind the scenes.

Like many immigrants, we also were low-income. While studying at CDMI, I needed to devote all my time to focusing on academics, so I couldn’t work. But, on any breaks I had I would work at my cousin's Mexican restaurant to earn money for rent and other expenses.  

How did Midwestern University and the College of Dental Medicine-Illinois (CDMI) impact your professional journey?

CDMI stands out for its exceptional willingness to go beyond what many others would do. It is truly an amazing institution. I cannot emphasize enough the multitude of ways in which it has positively impacted me. It is a progressive and diverse school that embraces individuals who may not fit the typical mold of dental school applicants.

CDMI recognizes the presence of talent, motivation, and passion in individuals who may not be considered traditional candidates. From my first visit, I felt a strong sense of belonging and possibility. It was early in my journey, yet I could envision myself as part of that community. I am immensely grateful to the school, forever indebted to the incredible people I met there, and fortunate to have formed lasting relationships with them. Without the opportunity provided by CDMI, I would not be where I am today.

What role did your heritage play in shaping your identity and helping you succeed as a dentist?

I believe it had a significant impact on my journey. Undocumented individuals and immigrants are often stereotyped as hardworking, relentless workers who endure long hours and low pay. While this may be a stereotype, it is also one of our greatest strengths. When we came to this country with very little, we had no other choice but to persevere. In challenging times, individuals who have had an easier path may be more inclined to give up, but for us, giving up has never been an option. We have faced numerous obstacles and setbacks, but we always find a way to get back on our feet and keep moving forward. Working in the fields under the scorching sun for 12-hour shifts taught me resilience. There were moments when the sun was relentless, but I learned to laugh it off and smile, knowing that there was no use in complaining. Losing a job due to lack of documentation meant finding another means of income, whether it was selling food, doing odd jobs for families, or landscaping. We are willing to explore any opportunity to keep progressing. This unwavering determination is a defining trait of our culture and my family. No matter what comes our way, we keep moving forward.

Having gone through these experiences, I have gained valuable skills that set me apart from recent graduates at the company I work for. I have excelled in multitasking, managing two operatories simultaneously while overseeing hygiene check-ups. Dental offices can be demanding environments. To ensure smooth operations, I must work efficiently and avoid errors that could impact the work of my colleagues. While there are days when the pressure feels overwhelming, I know how to persevere and maintain a positive outlook. In the relatively short time I have been practicing dentistry, I have achieved success. Little can deter me or knock me down, whether it's difficult patients, challenging coworkers, or workplace issues. Although these are common challenges, my experiences have toughened me, allowing me to navigate these types of situations. In a way, I’ve developed calluses.


Vargas as a worker on the left, as a doctor on the right.
José Vargas, D.M.D., a graduate of Midwestern University's College of Dental Medicine-Illinois (CDMI), pictured (left) after a day of working in the vegetable fields, and (right) in his current profession as a general dentist in Georgia.


What opportunities or advantages do you believe immigrants bring to their adopted countries?

Immigrants contribute immense diversity and a wealth of ideas to their adopted countries. Personally, I strongly believe that family plays a vital role in the lives of individuals with immigrant backgrounds. In my case, it was not solely my own effort that brought me this far, but the collective support of my family.

The hard work and strong work ethic displayed by immigrants have played a pivotal role in shaping the nation into what it is today. Many immigrants, including myself, have no choice but to work tirelessly, often in jobs that others may not prefer. Immigrants are all around us, serving as doctors, nurses, and lawyers, and contributing to various workplaces such as kitchens, restaurants, and hotels. We bring tremendous value to the country.

What do you want people to consider during Immigrant Heritage Month?

During Immigrant Heritage Month, it's important to recognize that despite our differences in appearance or background, we are much more similar than we realize. Despite potential language barriers, taking the time to truly get to know immigrants can reveal how alike we are. Breaking down these barriers and engaging in meaningful conversations can significantly reduce prejudice and foster greater understanding and acceptance. It's time to step out of our comfort zones, extend kindness, and bridge the divide that separates us from immigrants.

What advice would you give to aspiring immigrants who are considering a similar career path?

I’d tell them that there will be moments when it feels like you're facing endless obstacles, but remember that every successful individual, whether an athlete, artist, doctor, or lawyer, has experienced their share of struggles.

The journey may not be easy, but the challenges make the achievement all the more rewarding. You may be just one night of studying or one small decision away from reaching your goal. Many times, it’s the choice to get back up after being knocked down that sets apart those who persevere from those who give up.

How has your life changed since earning your D.M.D. degree from Midwestern University?

My life has changed completely since graduation. After eight years of struggle, it still amazes me how everything has changed. The first few paychecks felt surreal, as I entered a social and economic class that was unfamiliar to me. I now have the opportunity to enjoy things I never could before, things that I once considered luxuries.

One of the greatest joys for me is being able to spend quality time with my parents. Since I don't have children yet, I want to cherish these moments and create lasting memories with them. I take them out to eat and on vacations, and it brings me immense happiness to be able to treat them and see the joy on their faces. It's not about the material possessions I acquire for myself; it's the ability to help my family and make a positive difference in someone else’s life that makes me happy.

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