Growing to give back as a dental therapist

Emily Wick, DDS '21 and Pedro Lopez Vega, DT '24

Pedro Lopez Vega’s life seems to have followed a path that feels inevitable. Life has not been easy for the Dental Therapy class of 2024 student, but everything he has experienced has brought him to where he is today—and shaped his vision for the future.

Lopez Vega’s story starts 26 years ago, when his parents made the 2,000 mile journey from Mexico to Postville, Iowa. The small town became home, complete with the quintessential cornfields and pig farms of the state, but also boasting a surprisingly diverse population for such a small town. “It was one of the most interesting places to grow up,” said Lopez Vega, who was three years old when Postville became home. 

Though he grew up an Iowan, Lopez Vega’s and his family’s immigration status shaped his life and his future. An immigration raid in 2008 resulted in his mother’s arrest and deportation. A legal process resulted in visas, then permanent residency for Lopez Vega and his family, but the lessons of that time stayed with him. “That really affected my whole personality, and my character,” he said. 

Pedro Lopez Vega becomes a US citizen
Pedro Lopez Vega becomes a US citizen

After a delayed visa caused him to have to briefly drop out, then receiving permanent resident status his sophomore year, Lopez Vega became the first person in his family to graduate from college, receiving a Bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from Luther College. 

“When my permanent residency came, I felt comfortable,” he explained. “I felt secure.”

He was able to get a corporate job, doing what he felt he had been doing his whole life: translating. “I have to credit my parents for that: ever since I could, I have been a translator,” he said. “I say that in the simplest terms, like helping out when I see someone struggling at the grocery store, all the way to reading legal work or court documents.” As a project manager, Lopez Vega oversaw clinical communications and helped break down concepts from what he calls “medical English” into something that would be easier to understand from a general perspective.

In many ways, he was living his parents’ dream: a college degree, steady income, health care. That’s when his third-life crisis struck. “I can’t call it my mid-life crisis,” he joked. He was struck by the realization that he wanted to do more, to help more people.

“It’s constantly in the back of my brain,” he reflected. “My parents came over and brought me here when I was three. Their journey was epic. And I felt like I could do more, do better, with what I’d been given.”

Inspired by his girlfriend, Emily Wick, DDS ’21, he started shadowing and exploring health careers where he could make a difference. He thought he would study nursing—then COVID shut down all his volunteer opportunities.

That’s when Wick suggested he give his time and translation expertise to Hope Dental Clinic, where she had also volunteered. He fell in love with the clinic: “I decided, I’m going to take all my paid time off and spend it at Hope.”

Seeing that spark of joy from mission-driven oral health care, Wick brought up the possibility of dental therapy—and for Lopez Vega, it sounded perfect. He took his prerequisites, continued volunteering at Hope and worked diligently on his application.


For Lopez Vega, the mission behind dental therapy feels like the perfect way to do more while giving back to his community and communities like his. “It brings me back to when I was young, and we were undocumented,” he said. “We didn’t get regular health care, and other people in my town had to plan a half day or day trip to get their care. I’ve been there, I’ve lived that, and I know that I can provide a space for them.”

Lopez Vega sees the field as a space where he can grow, and where he can make real change in a community. And he knows how important it is for providers like him to occupy those spaces. “I really believe we should have a population of providers that reflect the community they take care of,” he said. “I really enjoy the diversity I see in my class, and the perspectives that come with it.”

And he has continued to grow, even within the first semester of his program. On the third day of the semester, he became a US citizen. For the first time, he could see a long-term future for himself. “It’s been so inspiring, to see the way things can happen,” he said. “The road is laying out in front of me, and I can see where my life is going to be for the next three years.”

He knows the next three years—and likely, whatever comes next—will not be easy. But then again, his life thus far hasn’t been easy, either. “It’s not going to be a smooth road, but it’s a road no less,” he said. “It’s more secure and stable than I’ve been able to see for many years. Now, I can continue to lay more pieces.”

The road he sees includes becoming a dental therapist and giving back to a small, diverse community—and advocating for the expansion of dental therapy to Iowa, so he can give back to his own community.

That’s what everything comes back to for Lopez Vega: his own family, his own story, his own town. Some days, it strikes him how everything in his life seems to have followed the path it was meant to follow.

“Every once in a while, I realize, it was 26 years ago that my parents were in Mexico, waiting for the next rainfall, so they could feed themselves through the winter. And now, they work, they own a house, they bug me about school, they have grandkids.”

Lopez Vega knows that he is fortunate, and is grateful for where he is. “I know there are kids in the position I was in, who aren’t where I am now,” he explained. “So what I do is not for my benefit. It’s for my community’s benefit. I want to help people, the way that I’ve been helped to reach this point, and to help others attain their goals, too.”