CDM Faculty Feature: Luz Marina Aguirre

September 23, 2020

From an orthographic standpoint, Colombia and Columbia are just one letter apart. Geographically speaking, it’s a trip of thousands of miles from the country to the University. And for Luz Marina Aguirre, DMD, who moved from Colombia to the United States with dreams but little English, it was a journey that demanded a great deal of effort and a deep well of perseverance.

Today, Aguirre is an assistant professor at the College of Dental Medicine (CDM) and directs the school’s DentCare program, an initiative that brings oral health services to communities in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx. She also guides CDM’s Hispanic Student Dental Association (HSDA) as an advisor and mentor.

The daughter of an engineer, Aguirre was raised in a company town in the mountains a few hours from Bogota. She completed dental school in the capital and then came to New York City to learn English as part of a plan to attend a postdoctoral orthodontics program in Sweden.

The privilege she enjoyed in Colombia evaporated upon arrival. Facing financial difficulties and unable to practice dentistry with foreign credentials, Aguirre worked as a dental assistant and did odd jobs while she took English classes. When she sought a dentist to mentor her locally, “All I heard was, ‘No, there’s nothing here; It’s very hard, go back to your country.’ But I kept doing my thing,” she says.

“That's one of the reasons why I enjoy talking to students so much. I understand that a lot of people have challenges to pay for their education and to grow their path. So, I like sharing my story—for them to see that they can do it. And to reach high because the higher you go, the more you help and the more lives you touch.”

Instead of continuing with her original career plan, Aguirre chose to stay in the United States and enrolled in the advanced standing program at the University of Pennsylvania’s dental school. “I had a lot of challenges because I was an ESL learner,” she says. “Every day I got myself in plenty of trouble because I didn’t know slang. I remember one time, I told my professor that my restoration had a hangover. I didn’t know what a hangover was—I meant to say an overhang.” Aguirre contended with other difficulties, too, like dedicating her weekends to babysitting to make ends meet.

Aguirre, second from right, was in the 2016-17 cohort of the American Dental Association’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership (photo courtesy of Luz Marina Aguirre)

Aguirre went on to complete residency training in CDM’s Advanced Education in General Dentistry program. In heavily Hispanic-populated Washington Heights, her Spanish fluency proved extremely valuable. “I was the star of the show. I had the language. Right away, patients gave me a lot of support, and I was always busy. I was able to complete a lot of great cases, and I was able to help my co-residents with my language skills,” she says. Although she was offered a faculty position at CDM, money at that time was still too tight for her to accept an academic’s salary.

After an unsatisfying year in private practice on the West Coast, Aguirre returned to New York to work at a community health center in the Lower East Side. There, she treated patients of all ages from the neighborhood and around the tri-state area, even serving as acting dental director for a year. During that time, she repaid her loans, got married, and had a child. When her maternity leave ended, she found that many cases were being sent away because of insurance changes at the health center and, feeling less engaged with her work, looked back to Columbia for opportunities.

Aguirre with CDM HSDA students at a health fair in 2014 (photo courtesy of Luz Marina Aguirre)

In 2007, Aguirre was brought on board CDM’s DentCare program to care for patients at the dental clinic at a local middle school and supervise pediatric residents in the mobile dental center. She also became the HSDA faculty advisor and supported the chapter’s growth from a few dedicated students to a robust group that organizes an array of community outreach and educational opportunities and hosts regional meetings.

“I like the students to experience the satisfaction that service and education grant,” she says. “Service doesn’t earn you a lot of money. But I think life is more than money. And the smile and gratitude of somebody in need—that, you keep, and nobody can take away.”

Aguirre left her full-time job at CDM in 2017 for a part-time position at another institution to balance work and family obligations but rejoined CDM in 2019 to reprise her roles in DentCare and HSDA. She was named director of DentCare in April 2020.

With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, many community dental programs have been put on pause, but Aguirre is eager to find ways to remain present in the community and close the health disparity gap. She is taking the opportunity to explore new collaborations, such as teaming up with the NewYork-Presbyterian Center for Community Health on a vaccination pilot, the charter school Democracy Prep on a program to provide telehealth to students and families, and the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia’s Mailman School for Public Health to support their ongoing research.

Aguirre poses with rainbow during the COVID-19 pandemic (photo courtesy of Luz Marina Aguirre)

During hard times, as in the current pandemic, Aguirre looks to the outdoors for connection and rejuvenation. “My name is Luz Marina. Luz is light. Marina is the port where the boats are. ‘Light of the Sea,’ my father used to say. So I find a lot of joy in nature—the ocean calms me down. Looking at birds, learning from nature, things that I’m grateful for. It helps me put things in perspective and say, ‘We’re not defeated, we’re going to find a way. We have to because more than ever now, the community needs us.’”