Biochemistry major Komal Khokhar could have interned at a hospital or clinic close to home. Instead, she trekked to the Andes Mountains to provide dental care and education in a remote Peruvian village with little access to potable water or electricity.
“Working in this village was completely eye-opening,” said Khokhar ’22 of her time working in a village in Cusco, Peru, with the Dental Outreach Program run by Volunteers Around the World (VAW). There, in a temporary medical clinic set up in a church – Khokhar worked alongside dental professionals from 7 a.m.-5 p.m., shadowing 25-28 appointments a day, Monday through Friday.
Khokhar grew up in Franklin Square, NY, but her family is originally from Pakistan.
“I was raised to understand that there are many countries around the world where the need for medical and dental care is a serious issue,” she said. “I wanted to learn how healthcare differs in developing countries and work toward making it more accessible to an underprivileged population. Service is the basis of the career I want to pursue.”
The student volunteers stayed in a more urban part of Cusco, where water was also scarce, and traveled two hours each way every day by van to do their work.
Khokhar’s work included assisting on procedures such as extractions, cleanings, fillings, sealants and suturing. “The other students and I were regularly asked to take patients’ vitals, sterilize instruments, perform basic triage, and manage the pharmacy,” she said.
They were also tasked with teaching the local children dental hygiene basics. One day they visited the local primary school, stopping in two classrooms with more than 30 children each, ages 8-12.
“We put a lot of time into our lesson, which we presented in Spanish,” she said. “We prepared drawings, illustrating healthy teeth, bad teeth, and cavities. The children were so excited to have us there and so interested in what we had to tell them. We handed out goody bags that I had brought from New York. Each one had a toothbrush, floss, toothpaste, and Disney stickers.”
Khokhar has always been interested in the sciences and medicine. However, she wanted to follow a career path different from her sister, a practicing MD. She began thinking about dentistry. “It is fascinating how our oral health is connected to the overall wellness of the body,” Khokhar says. “The mouth may show signs of systematic diseases before they are visible anywhere else on the body.”
Khokhar learned about VAW’s Dental Outreach Program through her membership in Hofstra’s chapter of the Association for Pre-Dental Studies. VAW offers study abroad experiences in several Latin American countries. Khokhar’s trip was partially subsidized thanks to a Transformative Learning Grant from Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The award subsidizes the out-of-pocket expenses Hofstra students incur when participating in experiential learning
During her down time, Khokhar explored her host country. “I fell in love with Peruvian tea and chocolate,” she said. There were also memorable excursions to the multicolored Rainbow Mountain and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Picchu.
But what most resonated with Khokhar from her time in Peru is the feeling that she made a difference.
“Being a student and having this opportunity to travel abroad opened my eyes to another way of life. I really encourage students to get out of their comfort zone. See how people live around the world. Volunteer to help,” she said. “Though I may not again see the people I met on this trip to Peru, knowing that I may have had a helpful, lasting impact on their lives has made me more certain that I want to pursue dentistry and additional service opportunities.”