While most middle-schoolers are hesitant to visit the orthodontist, grad-to-be Suzanne Wen remembers the office visits to adjust her braces as a “fun” experience.
“My dentist was really patient and told me everything that happened every step of the way, and I found that really interesting,” she said of her San Francisco-based orthodontist. “In high school, I had the opportunity to shadow him a little bit, as well as other dentists, and that was what solidified what I wanted to do — dentistry.”
Wen has spent most of her 26 years in school, and after graduating this week, the Bay Area native will continue her studies with a three-year orthodontic residency at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Her academic achievements are a special point of pride for her parents: Wen is the first person in her family to graduate from college.
“They’re really proud,” Wen said of her parents. “It’s been a long journey.”
Her mother and father emigrated from China to the United States nearly three decades ago.
“My dad didn’t complete high school,” Wen said. “My mom [attended] some high school; I’m not sure if she finished or not.”
Nevertheless, Wen said her mother emphasized the importance of education for her and her younger brother, a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who plans to apply to medical school.
“My mom wanted us to have a better future and believed education was the route,” Wen said. “She couldn’t teach us herself because she didn’t speak English, but she would try to find as many resources as she could for us. She worked really hard to get us tutors when we needed it.”
All in the family
Wen counts her mother and grandmother, who passed away two years ago, as the role models who guided her through school.
“They worked so hard to take care of me, and they sacrificed a lot for their family,” she said. “They’re really hard-working, kind, generous people; my mom worked so hard at her job she really inspired me to work hard in school.”
While Wen had her family’s support, her academic experience “was a little different because I was going through something they’ve never done before.”
She said she relied on friends and faculty at USC during difficult times when she was far from home, as well as scholarships and financial aid to fund her education.
Wen sees her family playing a large role in her future. After the residency, she plans to return to San Francisco and join a practice, and perhaps one day, open her own.
“I’ve been away for four years now. And it’s been great because I do love Los Angeles, and being away has helped me grow up a lot and discover more about myself,” she said. “But I want to be close to my family. They’ve been working hard their entire lives, so when I’m working, I want to be able to take care of them.”
Remembering the community
Wen also plans to continue the volunteer efforts she started at USC, which includes providing free dental work to homeless populations and to children in rural areas.
“I want to help out my local community,” she said.
As for advice for other first-generation college grads, Wen said, “You should always aim to achieve your best, surround yourself with good friends and resources and never be afraid to ask for help.”
Wen said she’s grateful for the group effort that got her through USC.
“I feel really privileged because I did have a lot of help; I met really good friends along the way, and I learned a lot,” she said. “And I’m really happy that I’m going to get to do my dream job.”