Kongsab Hatlavongsa, DDS, is the 2012 recipient of the CDA Foundation's Student Loan Repayment Grant.
Dr. Hatlavongsa will receive a maximum of $105,000 to help offset a portion of his student loan debt in exchange for a three-year commitment to practice in an underserved community, the CDA noted in a press release.
Dr. Hatlavongsa and his family came to the U.S. as refugees from Laos when he was 6 months old. Living below poverty level, he and his family struggled to overcome cultural, economic, and social obstacles.
"My parents always stressed the importance of hard work, higher education, and optimism," said Dr. Hatlavongsa, who achieved academic success as both a 2001 University of California, Berkeley School of Law graduate and a 2011 graduate of the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry.
With a desire to provide patients with quality dental care regardless of their financial status, Dr. Hatlavongsa chose to leave a career in a flourishing attorney practice and begin his new career by returning to his community to provide care to the underserved.
"I saw dentistry as an opportunity for me to impact more lives," he said.
Dr. Hatlavongsa practices in a United Health Centers community health clinic in Mendota, CA, where he works to provide accessible dental care to farm worker families and others who experience barriers.
The weight of student loan debt can make a career in public or community health nearly impossible for new dentists. To offset some of the financial burden, the CDA Foundation awards selected recent dental school/specialty graduates with the Student Loan Repayment Grant in exchange for a commitment to care for underserved individuals.
Since 2002, the program has placed 12 dentists into community clinics where they've helped more than 46,000 patients and provided nearly $13 million in care for individuals who experience barriers to care.
Nearly all of those dentists have remained in public health and in the communities where they first served, according to the CDA.