Michal Alchikh was inspired to study dentistry in his native Syria after he saw a dentist calming his special-needs brother during treatment. That experience “changed my perception of what dentistry could be,” he says. He studied in Damascus — until a bombing outside shook the building where he was taking an exam. “We heard people screaming,” he says. “The proctor told us to run home, but we couldn’t see for all the dust.” 

Courtesy of Michal Alchikh
Alchikh is studying to be a dental anesthesiologist. I had always dreamed, he says, of going to UCLA. 

He hid under a staircase until he could finally wend his way home. When he got there, his parents urged him to leave the country. But not wanting to quit school so close to finishing, he stayed. Eventually, with the war getting worse, he bolted to the U.S. Because he hadn’t yet worked on patients, he couldn’t enroll in UCLA’s two-year program for internationally trained students. Deciding he wanted a holistic dental education, he went with the traditional four-year dental program instead.  

In Venezuela, Eliane Ortiz Puche followed her favorite cousin into dental school. But after her mother was held at gunpoint in the midst of political protests, the family fled to Southern California, urging Ortiz Puche to drop out and go with them.

“But I was in my fourth year of dental school, and I couldn’t quit,” she says. She hung in for several more years. The school closed for a year and a half because of instability; what should have been a five-year program turned into seven. After graduation, Ortiz Puche stayed in Venezuela for four more months, fighting for human rights as she dealt with the corrupt bureaucracy to get her passport renewed. “There was always something happening — protests, lootings, chaos,” she says. During that time, thousands of young people were killed.

Then, during one protest, Ortiz Puche was tear-gassed, sending her tumbling to the ground. Someone carried her to a Red Cross vehicle. She knew she had to leave. 

Reuniting with her family in Los Angeles, Ortiz Puche found work as a babysitter, cashier and waitress. Then she got a job as a dental assistant to an oral surgeon, a UCLA graduate, in Beverly Hills. “She was a light in my life and supported whatever I needed to do to get into dental school,” Ortiz Puche says.

Courtesy of Eliane Ortiz Puche
Ortiz Puche (center) with her family. Completing her studies, shes secured a residency in oral surgery in Detroit. 

When the U.S. didn’t validate her Venezuelan degree, she joined UCLA’s two-year program for internationally trained dentists. “Everywhere I turned,” she says, “all the people I worked for who had high-quality educations and high standards in dentistry were from UCLA.” She’s now approaching her second dental school graduation and has secured a residency in oral surgery in Detroit.

For many years, students who have been displaced from their homelands have found refuge at UCLA, a place to begin again. This has been especially true in the UCLA School of Dentistry. Some of the school’s most illustrious alumni were Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s; another escaped the Iranian Revolution; still another fled Aleppo. 

Alchikh, now in his third year, plans to be a dental anesthesiologist, specializing in patients with dental phobia. “I had always dreamed of going to UCLA,” he says. “Even faculty members who come from environments like mine find doors open for them here.

“At UCLA, I’ve had so many opportunities to excel and enhance what I already had,” he continues, summing up the experience of scores of the displaced. “UCLA has helped me become who I am.”

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Summer 2024 issue.