As Yvette Caudillo pushes herself through each lecture, each test and each clinic patient on her way to graduating from Carl Sandburg College’s dental hygiene program, she does it with two people on her mind.
Caudillo’s mother, Susy, came to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico, at just 7 years old. Her father, Mauricio, was also born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. from Guanajato when he was 17. Neither spoke English when they arrived. Their sacrifices, Caudillo said, aren’t lost on her.
“They've dealt with so much that I feel like I have to do what I can do to make up for it,” said Caudillo, 21, of Silvis. "They were able to get through a lot of different struggles that I never had to deal with. I feel like I owe it to them.”
Caudillo hadn’t considered a career in cleaning teeth until a visit to her dentist’s office when she was a junior at United Township High School in East Moline. She had always enjoyed going there, and Caudillo’s dentist noted that her ability to speak English and Spanish would be a strong asset in a field where only about 6 percent of workers are Hispanic. Suddenly, she had her sights set on becoming a dental hygienist.
“I really haven't seen many Hispanic dental hygienists,” Caudillo said. “It has to start somewhere. More representation is important. I want to be the type of person that breaks the stigma and is able to represent other people because (dental health) is not just for one type or one group of people. It's for everyone.”
She spent two years fulfilling her general education requirements, applied for Sandburg’s dental hygiene program, got accepted and started here in the fall of 2021. The experience, she said, has been eye-opening, but it helped her realize she’s found her passion.
“I thought, ‘Oh, we're just learning how to clean teeth,’” she said. “But no, it’s not. I never realized how much the whole body affects the teeth and how the teeth affect the whole body. It's extremely important, and I never realized that until I started here.”
Because of COVID, Caudillo and her classmates in the program had to take their classes online during her first year at Sandburg. But throughout that time — and especially now that they’re back in the classroom and doing in-person work at Sandburg’s dental clinic — she’s been overwhelmed by the support she’s received from her peers and instructors.
“All of the instructors really care about you and if you're doing well. They really want to see you succeed, and I haven't been around that type of environment in a long time,” Caudillo said. “It's nice to have that support system at home and here as well. They’re like my second family here.”
Caudillo earned a spot on the dean’s list (3.5-4.0 GPA) in her first semester at Sandburg last fall and was named to the honors list (3.0-3.49 GPA) in the spring. She’s on track to finish the dental hygiene program this May and become the first college graduate in her family. She’s looking forward to sharing the moment with them when she passes her board exams and officially earns her license.
“I'm extremely excited that I'm going to be able to make my parents proud and they can be like, ‘Oh yeah, my daughter is a dental hygienist,’ or my grandparents are going to be able to do that,” Caudillo said. “I just want to live up to the American Dream that they want for me and my brother.”