A Family Affair

Different generations often attend Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (RSDM). But it’s quite rare when three family members study at the same time.

Luis Santana, a fourth-year student in the traditional DMD program, has been joined by his mother Nelia Espeso and his wife Lesly Rocha this year. A Cuban-trained dentist, Santana's mother is in the internationally educated DMD program and studies alongside third-year students. His wife is a first-year student in the traditional DMD program.  

Family photo
Luis Santana (left) with his mother Nelia Espeso and his wife Lesly Rocha.  

“It's very special,” said Santana. “But it also feels weird that I'm the D-4, and my mom is D-3. I'm asking her for dental advice all the time, and she's asking me about software we use in the clinic.” For his mother, this is a proud family moment.

In Cuba, Espeso was a general dentist with advanced training. “When I practiced [dentistry] for the first time, I knew it was my passion,” she said. She also spread that passion through teaching at a university. However, she left her career behind 12 years ago when she and her son moved to the US. Though she couldn’t practice as a dentist, she began working as a dental hygienist.

“I was happy as a hygienist, but I felt like I lacked something all the time,” she said. While in the clinic, she would overhear dentists’ conversations in the other room and think, “I want to do that.” That inner voice brought her to RSDM, to which some of her former students from Cuba had attended. “The feedback [from them] was very positive,” said Espeso. “This is an amazing school.” She now shares the classroom with one of her old students from Cuba and has been learning the latest dental techniques. “Dentistry developed in the 20 years,” she noted. With her RSDM degree, she will be able to step back into her dentist coat and might even teach again one day.

Until then, she continues to inspire others around her, like her daughter-in-law. “The first person that told me about dentistry was her,” said Rocha, who knew she wanted to go into healthcare. After shadowing a dentist, she also caught the dentistry bug and followed in her husband’s footsteps to RSDM.

Said Santana of his wife, “I feel glad I can help her now because I already covered that path. Three years ago, she was helping me all the time. She was working and taking classes at the same time. She was also helping me in the house, making sure I could study.”

A-soon-to-be-dentist, Santana's interest in the field developed naturally through his mother. He enrolled at RSDM because “the clinical experience is priceless,” he said. It proved to be true, especially when he began making dentures—his least favorite subject in the classroom that turned into his favorite clinical procedure. “Patients can smile back again; they can eat again,” he said. “It makes me really proud.”

After everyone graduates, the family hopes to go back to Miami. “I dream of having a big clinic,” said Santana, “with all of us working together.”