The Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine is the first dental school in West Texas. Its inaugural cohort of 40 students will start classes in July. | Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters
Three members of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine’s inaugural class have been humbled and inspired by the scholarships they received from the GECU Foundation earlier this year.
This past summer, the GECU Foundation announced a $323,000 gift to the Hunt School of Dental Medicine in support of the Dean’s Excellence Fund and student scholarships. The first three recipients of the scholarship were El Pasoans Steven Venzor, Paulette Ramirez and Michelle Hernandez.
The three classmates were shocked when Hunt School of Dental Medicine Dean Richard Black, D.D.S., M.S., told them they had received GECU scholarships. In Ramirez’s case, she thought her ears had deceived her.
“I didn’t know if I heard him correctly,” said Ramirez, a Burges High School and University of Texas at El Paso graduate. “It felt like I had blanked out, so I had to ask him to repeat it. When he said it a second time, I knew it wasn’t a dream.”
Both Hernandez and Venzor attended Silva Health Magnet High School across the street from Medical Sciences Building II, the home of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine. Eight years ago, the dental school was a dream Venzor didn’t think would come to fruition. When the opening of the school was announced, he applied and hoped for the best. While he was studying for his finals at UTEP, Dr. Black called to offer him admission and the scholarship all at once.
“To be honest, I just broke down because I couldn’t believe it,” Venzor said. “It felt like it was meant to be when I got the call from Dr. Black. Things lined up so perfectly, I had to say ‘yes.’ I had to come here.”
Hernandez worked while attending New Mexico State University so receiving the dental school scholarship has lifted a weight off her shoulders, letting her focus on her studies.
“The scholarship is going to give me a lot more financial support, so I don’t have to rely on other types of financial assistance, which results in more debt,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been a GECU member since I was 16, so I feel I have a connection to the credit union already. Life kind of came full circle to help me out with the next phase.”
The GECU Foundation’s goal is to help TTUHSC El Paso’s mission of improving lives in El Paso and surrounding communities. This starts with financially assisting members of the first dental class who will engage with patients in the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic as soon as their first semester. This early introduction to clinical training is part of how the Hunt School of Dental Medicine will offer the most innovative curriculum in the country, just as the Foster School of Medicine did when it was established 11 years ago.
“GECU’s philosophy is people helping people,” said Crystal Long, president and CEO of GECU. “Our foundation’s commitment to TTUHSC El Paso is a commitment to the health of our entire community. Our aim is to elevate El Paso through education, community programs and philanthropic giving.”
That support motivates Hernandez to help patients as a student and later, as a dentist. She said she views GECU as a model representative of the community she hopes to serve.
“GECU has been so generous. How can you not be inspired? Dr. Black has repeatedly told us that it’s valuable to give back to the community and not to forget where we come from,” Hernandez said. “This scholarship is definitely an incentive to give back to the community.”
Ramirez added that the GECU Foundation is a role model for her and her classmates. She can only hope to one day be seen the same way by the community.
“I knew GECU was based in El Paso, but I never realized before how invested they are in the community,” Ramirez said. “It makes me proud to be a member of the El Paso community and it makes me glad I chose to pursue dentistry.”
The 38,000-square-foot Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic, and its 145 treatment chairs, will soon welcome patients from the community. The clinic is expected to be a top dental-care destination, offering reduced-cost care not only for the public, but for TTUHSC El Paso faculty, staff, students and their families.
Venzor said he knows first-hand how much the El Paso community needs a state-of-the-art clinic. He’s proud to be among the first group of students to care for residents.
“I grew up here and used to get my dental work done in Ciudad Juárez. I know what it’s like to be in that situation, waiting in long lines at the port of entry,” Venzor said. “I can’t wait to give back to my community and provide world-class patient care at the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic.”
A common theme among the 40 students in the inaugural Class of 2025 is that they are all committed to fulfilling the university’s mission and serving the people of West Texas and the border region. This is a testament to the importance of providing enhanced educational opportunities in the Borderland, as well as the need for a dental school in the region.
In 2017, only 50% of El Paso residents visited a dentist. In El Paso County, there’s only one dentist for every 4,840 residents, compared to the national average of one dentist for every 1,638. Because most graduating dentists set up their practices in proximity to their dental schools, the Hunt School of Dental Medicine will help alleviate the severe shortage of dentists in the Paso del Norte region. It’s the only dental school in West Texas and the first on the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s also one of few Hispanic-Serving dental schools in the nation, with 32.5% of the student of the inaugural class identifying as Hispanic.