Class of 2024: Yahizkibel Vallenilla’s Journey from Naval Service to a Dental Hygiene Degree

Kenya Godette

After a journey that spanned countries, decades and countless victories, Navy veteran and Ecuadorian immigrant Yahizkibel “Yahiz” Vallenilla was about to reach a landmark moment: Just one week after her 43rd birthday, she received her Odo Bachelor's degree in Dental Hygiene from Old Dominion University.

“In a month, I'm going to graduate. I'm so excited. I'm so excited about it!” she said.

But Valenilla's achievement doesn't come without sacrifice, and as she prepares to don her cap and gown in just a few weeks, she remembers the ups and downs that brought her here.

Born in Ecuador and raised between Ecuador and Venezuela, she recalls traveling among family members between the ages of six and nine and attending seven schools in six years.

“My parents separated when I was two years old,” she said. “So, my mother decided to leave me with her sister to work in Venezuela.”

When Valenela was 15, her mother returned to Ecuador hoping to reunite with her daughter full-time, only to find that all her savings were gone.

“The government there is not very honest,” Valenilla said. “So, they stole all the money from the bank. All the money my mom had worked for and saved for the future was gone.

“Many people immigrated to look for work because they had nothing,” she said—her mother was one of them. “Even though my mom was the youngest of her siblings, she tried her best to provide for everyone. She worked really hard.

Still, Vallenilla had big dreams of entering the dental field, and at 19 she enrolled in the Facultad Piloto de Odontología, a dental school in Ecuador. After graduation, she used her skills to help those in need, working with a group of classmates to provide free dental care to rural towns in the area.

“My goal was never to make money,” she said. “Maybe because I've been through so many ups and downs in life, I thought I could use my talents to help others.”

Vallenilla continues to pursue her passion for helping people, receiving the 2023 Sharon C. Stull Oral Health Community Impact Scholarship for her leadership and volunteer initiatives in improving oral health literacy in Hampton Roads.

“While Yahiz has excelled in the dental hygiene program, nothing compares to the dedication she puts into serving her community,” said Brenda Bradshaw, assistant professor in the College of Health Sciences. “She is known for her innovative achievements and service to the local Hispanic community.”

As a recipient of this scholarship, Vallenilla collaborated with her mentor, Professor Adaira Howell, to organize Latin Dental Visit Days to provide dental care and interpretation services to underserved individuals in the Hispanic community. Valenilla also volunteered to help her classmates translate documents from English to Spanish.

But English, and especially translation, wasn't always easy for Valenira. She remembers being newly married, pregnant with her first child, and moving to Ossining, New York, where she struggled to adjust to her new surroundings.

“It was really hard at first,” she said. “I don’t have any family here. If you think my English is terrible now, imagine 18 years ago!

Determined to make a better life for her family and continue her education, Valenilla began taking weekend English classes at Westchester Community College and eventually enrolled in night classes at the Ninth District Dental Society.

She worked, saved money and eventually joined the Navy – another goal of hers.

“When I returned to Ecuador, my intention was to be a member of the navy there,” she said. “I was doing paperwork, but I got married and moved here. So I said to myself, let me check again.

Valenilla enlisted in the U.S. Navy and completed boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois. She recalled that the oldest person in her class was 30 years old and the youngest was 17 years old.

“But it's fun for me,” Valenilla laughed. “The leader of our group was yelling at us to work out, but the best part was I couldn’t understand what they were saying.”

While she was in Great Lakes, she took classes as an electronics technician, and when she was transferred to Biloxi, Mississippi, she went to school to learn weather radar. In July 2013, Valenilla received an order to be transferred to Virginia. Upon arrival, she was immediately deployed aboard CVN 75 USS Harry S. Truman until April 2014.

“While I was on the boat, we only had access to the internet after midnight. So during that time, I was looking for schools and housing so I could bring my daughter to Virginia,” she said. “And I was lucky. I bought a townhouse in the area and found ODU.

She applied to participate in ODU's dental hygiene program in 2017, but was unable to participate due to life reasons. She remarried, had two more children, and decided to focus on her budding family—a choice she doesn't regret.

But 2022 is her time.

“It's time for me to go back to school,” she said. “I love ODU as an institution. It's close to my home, they have a dental hygiene program, which is my background and what I love to do. It's perfect for me.

Valenilla credits her upcoming degree and academic success to her professors, calling them “angels.”

“Professors Brenda Bradshaw and Jessica Suderbeck are wonderful,” she said. “Knowing that there are people around me who support me and appreciate me has helped me get through this. Without them I would not have graduated.

While Valenilla was modestly supported by her professors, her professors also aspired to be people she could trust.

Yahiz is an absolute shining star in the Dental Hygiene program, and I am excited to work with her as her senior clinic coordinator,” said Jessica Suedbeck, assistant professor in the School of Dental Hygiene. “She has always performed well and worked hard to succeed, so in the fall of 2023, I was shocked when I heard the news that she might leave the program due to personal issues. I immediately set up a meeting with Yahiz to discuss our What support is available and I want her to know that the entire faculty is on her side and rooting for her and I am so grateful that she persevered and never gave up – she will be a truly great dental hygienist for all time! Ahiz will not be forgotten.

In a full-circle moment, Vallenilla's eldest daughter – who has been with her through it all – will continue her mother's legacy at ODU. She is 18 years old and majoring in biomedicine.

Valenilla is looking forward to taking some time off after graduation and hopes to spend a two-week vacation with her children.

“I think I owe them this,” she said.

Afterwards, she plans to work as a dental hygienist and volunteer at Chesapeake Care Clinic, doing what she loves and does best.

Valenilla's story is far from over, but when she hangs up her dental coat, she hopes to pass on her thirst for knowledge and tenacity to her children.

“I think education is better than inheritance,” she said. “If you can't leave your children a house or a lot of money, that's okay, as long as you educate them and give them a chance to pursue their dreams. I think that's the best.

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