Hunt School of Dental Medicine – Receiving a white coat is a time-honored tradition and symbolic of a student’s transformation into a health care provider.
For the Hunt School of Dental Medicine’s class of 2026, each student’s new white coat represented something special and distinctive as they donned them for the first time Saturday at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso campus.
The coat can stand for leadership, professionalism, hope, and even love.
Las Cruces native Felisha Vallabh had dreams of her first white coat since childhood, when her sister, a pharmacist, received hers. One of Vallabh’s biggest supporters was her father, who had no doubt his daughter would one day have her own.
“My dad passed away this past year, and it was his last wish that I get my white coat. So, it was a very bittersweet ceremony without him there to see me, but I know he’s watching over me, and he’ll be with me over these next four years,” said Vallabh, a New Mexico State University graduate. “I’m glad he knew I got into dental school. In fact, he was the first person I told once I was accepted. Since that day, it’s motivated me to do my best and become a dentist, like he knew I could.”
Aside from making her father proud, Vallabh is among the first three Hunt School of Dental Medicine students from New Mexico. Thanks to a partnership between the Hunt School of Dental Medicine and the New Mexico Higher Education Department, two of the students will receive tuition assistance. As part of the partnership, the agency covers the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for New Mexico students who otherwise would be required to pay the higher out-of-state tuition to attend the Texas school.
The class of 2026 has 61 students, with more than a third coming from West Texas and the Mexico border region, including 11 from El Paso. About 34% are first-generation college students, and 61% speak more than one language. Because most graduating dentists establish their practices in proximity to their dental schools, the Hunt School of Dental Medicine will help alleviate a severe shortage of dentists in the Borderplex. 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.
Before students received their white coats, a special guest presented the ceremony’s keynote address: American Dental Association President Cesar R. Sabates, D.D.S. Dr. Sabates spoke to the students about overcoming challenges to reach their dreams. In his case, his parents sacrificed almost everything moving from Castro-ruled Cuba to the United States when he was a child, to ensure he and his siblings had the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
His father, Cesar L. Sabates, was an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Cuba who wanted to leave but could not, because the government valued his skill, until he was diagnosed with Hodgkin disease. Finally allowed to leave Cuba, the Sabates family moved to the United States where the elder Sabates received medical treatment for his illness, attended dental school and continued to practice dentistry in his new country. For the younger Sabates, it instilled a love for the profession and for overcoming any challenges life may put in your way.
“I always tell people, I was born in Cuba and I was reborn in Houston, Texas, where I overcame cancer four times as a patient at MD Anderson Cancer Center,” Dr. Sabates said. “We’re all able to overcome our hardships. Nothing is impossible with the right mindset and faith in God. And that’s my message to these students.”
Dr. Sabates’ words stayed with students after they put on their coats. Each student also reflected on what their coat signifies in their own lives. For Jake Jurecky, the coat will be a symbol of trust to his future patients.
“I had a lot of dental issues when I was younger, with crowded teeth. I was able to get it taken care of and as a result, I had a great experience with dentists growing up,” said Jurecky, an El Paso born and raised student. “Then I always heard others talk about their negative experiences at the dentist. So after I graduate, I want to change that perception with my future patients. I want them to have a great experience like I did.”
For the second year in a row, the white coats were a gift from Ed and Sue Anderson to Hunt School of Dental Medicine students. Ed Anderson has a long history as an El Paso businessman. He is a partner at NovaDX, a laboratory service, and the president of Diversified Interiors, a commercial contracting company he founded 40 years ago.
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine opened in 2021 and is the first dental school in Texas to open in more than 50 years. The dental school offers the most innovative curriculum in the country, preparing students for the future of dentistry with high-tech simulation and an advanced fabrication laboratory.
A first for any dental school in the nation, students begin clinical training and patient interaction during their first semester. As the only dental school on the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s the first and only dental school in the nation that requires Spanish language courses.
“One of the things I love about this school is it promotes diversity,” Dr. Sabates said. “The school’s dean, Dr. Richard Black, and the faculty here have done a tremendous job. These facilities, the technology and the curriculum have impressed me. I truly believe they will excel at creating a new generation of dentists for this region.”