Alan Muñoz Valenciano has faced adversity from a young age since his family arrived in the United States from Mexico. The recent Colorado State University graduate said it sometimes feels like he has had to work twice as hard to get half as much out of life.

Too often, Dreamers like Munõz – undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children – face significant challenges in college, grappling with anxieties over an uncertain future and access to basic needs such as health care in the only country they have ever known as home.

So, when his wisdom teeth started giving him pain in his jaw, he just gritted through it to make it to graduation.

“At first it was really bad,” said Muñoz, who recently received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the College of Liberal Arts. “I would grab on my jaw and try to massage it and open and close my jaw to try to mitigate the pain. But after a while, you just deal with it.”

Luckily, help was on the way, through an unexpected source – the university.

At CSU, leaders have worked to support all of its students, including all undocumented students, which includes Dreamers — those who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants conditional two-year work permits and protects against deportation.

According to Kathy Sisneros, assistant vice president for student affairs, CSU has focused on creating a support network for undocumented students. The Office of Admissions, the Career Center, the CSU Health Network, Student Legal Services, the Office of Financial Aid, the Office of the Registrar and Student Diversity Programs and Services are among the many key players in helping Dreamers at CSU, Sisneros said.

“There are a lot of really committed folks on this campus,” she said. “We have a really core group across the university who can see the infrastructure of support needs that our students have. It’s a commitment to making sure our students have the opportunity to succeed.”

Finding dental help

Alan Muñoz Valenciano at a rally in Colorado

Alan Muñoz Valenciano at a Black Lives Matter rally in his hometown of Rifle, Colorado, is one of seven CSU students to receive major dental procedures through KIND.

College of Liberal Arts Associate Professor Eric Ishiwata is one of those many committed folks. Ishiwata is the faculty adviser of the CSU chapter of Dreamers United, a national organization of more than 100,000 immigrants and supporters advocating for DACA/undocumented youth and their families.

For the last three years, he has been working to find dental care for CSU students like Muñoz so they can better focus on academics.

“The more that CSU can do to remove some of the obstacles or barriers that our students are facing that prevent them from having a fair and equal opportunity, the better off we’ll be, not just for the students, but for the institution,” he said. “Because the students are going to be able to make even greater contributions to our campus community, to classroom discussions, to all of our daily lives.”

“The more that CSU can do to remove some of the obstacles or barriers that our students are facing that prevent them from having a fair and equal opportunity, the better off we’ll be, not just for the students, but for the institution.”

— Eric Ishiwata, College of Liberal Arts associate professor

During his search, Ishiwata encountered numerous dead ends until he received a tip from Janet Lopez, director of policy and advocacy for the Rose Community Foundation in Denver. Lopez told him about KIND — Kids in Need of Dentistry, a Denver-based nonprofit that provides access to oral health experiences, treatment and education to children, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.

KIND Executive Director Ellie Burbee put Ishiwata in contact with a local dentist who was able to provide seven CSU students with major dental procedures. Ishiwata said he was stunned when he received the good news from Burbee via email.

“It was hard to believe,” he said, “because I can’t really express how defeated I felt because we had worked so hard to make these connections for three years. And it felt like it was an impossible feat. And so then to have a partner come in, and just say, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s taken care of,’ it was hard to believe, but I’m truly appreciative.”

Burbee said KIND has been working to bring free and low-cost dental help to those in need for 108 years.

“We’re driven by the fact that this care offers a definitive turning point in the lives of patients and their families, representing a shift from despair and pain, to living a life happier and more confidently,” she said. “We’ve always believed in the power of young people to unite us all. Their authentic energy, paired with the reality of economic and health disparities beyond their control, pushes us to ensure the progress they deserve.”

“We’ve always believed in the power of young people to unite us all. Their authentic energy, paired with the reality of economic and health disparities beyond their control, pushes us to ensure the progress they deserve.”

— Ellie Burbee, KIND executive director

Dr. Kevin M. Patterson of Denver Metro OMS, who has been practicing oral and maxillofacial surgery in Colorado for more than 20 years, agreed to help out. Patterson said he has a special interest in providing care for individuals who may not have the means to obtain care in clinics.

“I wish I had a quick solution for the inequity in health care that has taken hold in this country,” he said. “For now, I am committed to do as much as I can to ensure access to care for as many people as possible, even if it means only seven at a time. The long-term solution is very simple: If everyone did just a little to help those in need, then the need would quickly disappear.”

Looking to the future

Alan Muñoz Valenciano speaks with Colorado State Sen. Bob Rankin

Alan Muñoz Valenciano, who has a passion for working in the nonprofit sector, speaks to Colorado State Sen. Bob Rankin.

When Muñoz heard the good news, his first reaction was to turn down the offer of the wisdom teeth extraction to help those who may need it more. He said it stemmed from his commitment to helping others — something he has done as vice president of Dreamers United as well as for nonprofits and community organizations.

As an example, Muñoz spearheaded a Dreamers United health survey to learn what sorts of medical and health assistance undocumented students on campus might need. He said more than 80% of undocumented students had to forgo medical services because of financial struggles.

“For me, when it comes to helping these students who are immigrants as well, I want to be that person that I didn’t have growing up,” he said.

“For me, when it comes to helping these students who are immigrants as well, I want to be that person that I didn’t have growing up.”

— Alan Muñoz Valenciano, recent CSU graduate

When Ishiwata assured Muñoz that there would be enough spots for all of the students needing dental assistance, he scheduled the appointment. Muñoz said the procedure is slated for July.

Muñoz, who is from Rifle, Colorado, said it’s been close to a decade since he’s been to the dentist, adding that his family is thrilled he’s able to get his wisdom teeth removed at no cost.

As he prepares for the procedure and life after graduation and his new job with nonprofit El Centro Humanitario, which provides educational opportunities and ensures safe working conditions for day laborers in Denver, Muñoz said he’s feeling grateful for the upcoming procedure and proud of his recent graduation.

“Growing up with my experiences and talking with other students who are undocumented, a lot of times it seems as if we’re doing this stuff on our own,” he said. “So, when we get stuff like this, where it’s a hand reaching out with a gift, it really relieves a lot of the stress, and it makes us feel welcomed and a part of the community.”