By Brianna Lusk
Valley Women Writer
4:10 PM PDT, April 11, 2011
Sometimes all it takes is a chance meeting, a question asked aloud that you never had the courage to ask yourself.
For Jackie Valadez, a dental hygienist, her flexible schedule gave her weekly days off, which she utilized in an unconventional way. It turns out the days she spent volunteering in her mother’s fourth-grade classroom was preparation for a new career.
“When that chance meeting happened and I was asked, ‘Have you ever thought about teaching?’ I thought this is it. I’ve just been waiting for someone to ask me this question,’ ” Valadez says.
Although Valadez would describe her new career as the teacher of Southwest High School’s dental assisting program as merely a well-timed opportunity, her passion and unwavering dedication reveals she has come full circle from an uncertain high school student to a respected professional leading others to their full potential.
Spiritually Supported, Professionally Guided
It wasn’t too long ago that Valadez was a cheerleader at Brawley Union High School, chanting with the crowd at football games. As the “commissioner of spirit,” the teenager bled blue and gold and gave little thought to going to college.
“My mom is a teacher, so I knew it was always important to be able to take care of yourself and be self-sufficient,” Valadez says. “But I wasn’t on the path to going to a university.”
Interestingly, she always loved going to, of all places, the orthodontist’s office. She decided dental hygiene would be her chosen profession.
“I love dental hygiene,” she says with a smile. “I love being a healthcare provider and taking care of people.”
A series of part-time jobs in dental offices led Valadez to fulfilling her professional dreams. In 1994, she was hired by Dr. Richard Barsan, which sparked the beginning of an ongoing mentorship.
“He supported me by working around my hours and letting me learn everything,” Valadez recalls.
Valadez began to improve her grades at Imperial Valley College and set her sights on transferring to Loma Linda University, one of a handful of schools in California that offers a degree in dental hygiene.
“I was a fish out of water. I was from the Valley, I was a minority and not Seventh-day Adventist,” she says of her time at the university. “But it fed me spiritually. I found a new family there; the program had a positive message.”
Personal trials and triumph
During her time at Loma Linda, she phoned her mother every day for support. Her high school sweetheart Isaac drove up for events on the weekends.
Enduring a few years of a long-distance relationship, the couple married in Brawley after Valadez graduated from Loma Linda and started her new career as a dental hygienist. A few years later, the couple moved to San Marcos and enjoyed the southern California lifestyle, going out to eat, to the beach and driving their convertible Ford Mustang with the top down.
Valadez said they had freedom but didn’t know many people in the area. When the couple discovered they were expecting, they quickly made plans to move back to the Valley.
“There really is no place like home,” she adds.
Tragedy struck a month later when Valadez miscarried. A few months after that, hope was renewed when Valadez became pregnant again until a second miscarriage left the couple devastated.
“We just were resigned that it wasn’t going to happen for us. It was a sad time. It helped us grow as a couple,” Valadez recalls.
At the time, Valadez was not sure they would ever be able to start a family. That worry was lifted several years ago. She slides a photo across the table and beams, “That’s Ivan. He’s 3 and a half. That’s my son.”
After being blessed with a child, Valadez began a new path, the one that started years ago when she began volunteering in her mother’s classroom.
Southwest High School Principal Danette Morrell was looking for someone to begin the Southwest Academy for Careers in Health Sciences, a grant-funded partnership with Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program.
“Although we hired Valadez at a part-time level that first year, she’s always given it the dedication of a full-time job,” Morrell says. “She is a phenomenal educator.”
Valadez was given the challenging task of starting the program from scratch, with the dental assisting program as the cornerstone of Southwest’s curriculum of careers in health sciences.
“She found all sorts of resources on her own because it was the first course of its kind in the Valley. It’s a quality program because she’s able to not only have everything she needs to teach the course, but she also motivates students to find their place,” Morrell says.
Before classes began in 2008, Valadez and her family set to work on the classroom that had previously been used for storage. Valadez took the initiative to contact the Imperial County Public Health Department that had recently shut down its dental program and asked for a donation of the remaining equipment. A retiring dentist also donated his storage room full of supplies.
Valadez tapped her connections so the grant money for the program could be used for other things, as the classroom slowly became stocked through the goodwill of others.
“It goes to show what a small community is all about,” Valadez notes. “The dental community has been so supportive.”
Toward the end of her first year as a teacher, Valadez’s opportunity to step into a full-time teaching position was cemented.
“It’s so rewarding. I try to give (the students) my best,” Valadez admits.
From instructor to role model
At the time, a senior named Sophia Marroquin enrolled in Valadez’s course. Marroquin had little desire to finish school, and lacking the encouragement of her parents, she had resigned herself to possibly not graduating.
“I didn’t really like school. I felt it was pointless. It dawned on me that I was never going to amount to anything,” Marroquin, now 19, says.
After enrolling in Valadez’s dental assisting class, Marroquin tapped into a whole new side of herself.
Just a few months after starting the class, Valadez took a group of students to Ontario for the Health Occupations Students of America state leadership competition. Marroquin proved to be a fierce competitor in dental assisting. She took the gold medal, first place, at the state competition and advanced to take seventh place in the national competition in Florida. Marroquin’s interest in continuing her education flourished.
“Mrs. Valadez has impacted my life significantly. She gave me a lot of hope and pride in myself,” Marroquin, now a student at Imperial Valley College, says. “It was the best experience of my life.”
As the HOSA advisor, Valadez is taking 40 students to the state competition this year. Morrell emphasizes this is no small feat, as the students can be competing in many different areas.
In addition to HOSA, Valadez transformed her medical terminology class into a public service project. In order to give her students a connection to the words on the page, she requires them to create health education presentations. The students also volunteer for organizations like Between Women, a breast cancer organization, and at events like World AIDS Day.
Valadez says she knew in order to get through to the high school students she had to demonstrate the relevancy of the coursework to their lives.
“I don’t want to teach my students terminology without showing them their role in educating others,” Valadez says.
Dr. Richard Barsan says Valadez’s immersion in her work has always been an admirable one. Though Valadez credits Dr. Barsan with giving her the first job that sparked her career, he says it is her own drive that has led to her continued success.
“It’s gratifying to see what she’s become. I think teaching is even better because she gets to spread her ideas to a whole group of people. She is the epitome of a dental professional,” Barsan adds.
Southwest High Principal Morrell says Valadez’s ability to find ways for high school students to realize the importance of contributing to the community is unparalleled.
“It’s really motivating to get them out there and provide a service in some small way. It makes for genuine learning,” Morrell says. “The students are really devoted to her.”
Balancing life with a dose of reality…TV
Valadez admits she could talk for hours about her students and the ways they constantly impress her. But after two years of teaching under her belt, she reveals that, unlike being a dental hygienist, it is a 24-7 job.
Over time, she’s learned to set boundaries and ensures she spends time with her young son and her husband.
“I’m learning it’s okay to say no,” Valadez admits.
The moments she spends with her family are cherished and irreplaceable.
“Being a mom transforms you. I want him to know how important education is, what paths are possible,” she says.
Valadez herself is continuing her education and working on her master’s degree in teaching.
The self-proclaimed reality television junkie confesses her digital video recorder is her best friend, and there’s always room in her schedule for sharing wine with friends or dancing to 80's music.
Acknowledging the support of her family, especially her mother who has continually inspired her, and others, Valadez says she only hopes that those who have demonstrated trust in her ability along the way feel she has made them proud.
“If I never took that first step, who knows what could have happened,” she admits.
Former student Marroquin says she hopes Valadez knows how inspiring she is to students in and outside of the classroom.
Marroquin says it was Valadez who helped her turn her life around, even when her parents were unsupportive.
Marroquin’s start of her own career is closely tied with Valadez’s beginnings. She is hoping to transfer to dental school and pursue orthodontics or dental hygiene and is currently working part time in a dentist’s office.
“If I hadn’t taken that class, I probably wouldn’t be in college. I’d be working in some fast-food joint. I love my job. She’s transformed my life,” Marroquin says of her mentor Valadez.
“Mrs. Valadez showed me I can be somebody. I can do something with my life. She was more than just an instructor; she was a role model for me.”
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press