Melissa Gerald was never encouraged to attend college.
“People like us do not go to college,” her father would tell her. “College is for the rich, the privileged. Where we come from, people just work to survive.”
In fact, all that Gerald’s parents — Michael, a short-order cook, and Rhonda, a waitress — told their daughter was that she should graduate from high school, something they hadn’t even done, and maybe find a factory job.
But Gerald defied these expectations, graduating from the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC with a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene and becoming the first in her family with a college education.
First-gen dental hygiene graduate: Growing up too fast
Gerald’s road to Troy wasn’t an easy one.
Born and raised in Detroit, her childhood was cut short when she started having to care for herself while her parents struggled with drug addiction and fell in and out of the criminal justice system.
Some things that normal kids my age would never see during their entire lifetime was just an everyday part of my life.
“I grew up really fast,” Gerald said. “Some things that normal kids my age would never see during their entire lifetime was just an everyday part of my life.”
Gerald’s mother and father were both addicted to cocaine and heroine and regularly used around their kids. Her father was in and out of jail throughout her childhood, and her mother eventually abandoned her children when Gerald was just 7.
To help Gerald and her brother, Michael, escape life in the fast lane, their grandparents took custody of them from the mid-1980s to 1995.
“They did what they could,” she said. “But I feel they were far too old to be raising us. They lacked patience with us, and we had to learn a lot of life lessons on our own.”
As a teenager, Gerald fell in with the wrong crowd, running the streets, dating and partying way too much.
“I guess I always felt like I was on the back burner, so doing this finally made me feel accepted by someone,” she said.
A fresh start in L.A.
When Gerald turned 15, her newly sober mother came back into her life and moved the family (sans patriarch Michael) to California. The single mother picked up shifts as a waitress to support the family.
Away from the streets of Detroit, Gerald saw the opportunity to turn her own life around, graduating from high school and finding work as a waitress alongside her mother, who passed away from colon cancer in 2004. Her father, now retired, has been sober for five years and volunteers for a San Bernardino church.
During one of Gerald’s waitressing shifts, one of her customers — a dentist — had some advice for the affable young woman.
“He was the first person to tell me about dental assisting and how good I would be because I was already skilled at multitasking,” she said.
On that advice, she enrolled in trade school to become a dental assistant — working with several dentists afterward until she got a job offer from the UCLA School of Dentistry’s Section of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, an academic environment that would change her life trajectory forever.
“I was surrounded by people I had never encountered before,” she said. “They took pride in their careers. They didn’t look at a job as a way to simply pay the bills but as something that provided a sense of fulfillment.”
Fight on — no matter what
Inspired by the experience — and bolstered by the support of her colleagues who “saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself” — Gerald decided to pursue a career in dental hygiene. She completed her first two years at a community college before transferring to USC in 2016 to finish her bachelor’s degree.
“USC has developed in me a true passion for dentistry,” she said. “I never looked at dentistry as being an art, but USC has shown me it truly is.”
After commencement, Gerald plans to begin working for a practice in Los Angeles and is considering pursuing a master’s degree in public health.
She admits her motivation isn’t entirely intrinsic; she’s motivated to provide a better upbringing than she received for her son Jason, 15, and her daughter, Jasmine, who was born in 2000 as a 3-pound preemie with cerebral palsy.
“She is such an inspiration for me,” Gerald said of her now 18-year-old daughter. “My drive in life to beat the odds does not compare to the odds she needs to beat.” She added that her supportive son is a great brother to Jasmine.
Gerald also has some advice for others who might find themselves in situations similar to the one she once faced.
“Don’t fear new or different experiences because you never know what positive impact they may have on you,” she said. “And always fight on, no matter what life throws at you.”