Or, in Loeta Robles' case, right across the street.
Back in 1991, "I was looking for a part-time job after school and saw an opening for a sterilization assistant at the dental practice across from my high school in Chico," she said. "I didn't give it a whole lot of thought."
She got the job, and the attention of the dentist, Barbro Beckett, DDS. Beckett saw potential in the teenager, and encouraged Robles to pursue a career in dentistry. Likewise, the field caught Robles' attention. She decided to become a dental hygienist, and obtained her bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene from UCSF in 1996.
Robles returned to Chico to practice dental hygiene for the next 14 years in Beckett's practice. As she became increasingly interested in the clinical aspect of the practice, Robles decided to go back to UCSF for her dental education.
"I remember that I was the youngest student in my hygiene class and the oldest student in my dental class," recalled Robles, who earned her DDS in 2015.
Being an older student brought its own set of challenges. Robles was the mother of two toddlers and lived 175 miles from the UCSF campus. She and her family initially planned to move to San Francisco, but eventually opted to stay in Chico so the children's routine wouldn't be disrupted and her husband wouldn't have to leave his job.
Robles did all of her class work Monday through Friday. She left her house in Chico at 3 a.m. for class every Monday morning and didn't return until 10 p.m. on Friday night.
Despite the heavy demands of being a fulltime dental student living hours from her family, Robles was still an active participant in family matters. "I became a cyber parent and used FaceTime a lot," she said. "I'd have breakfast and dinner — virtually — with my family most nights and played games and read books to my children. We made it work."
In addition to support from her family, the community of Chico rallied to help out the family when they needed it. The neighborhood preschool went out of its way to make sure Robles' children were enrolled, and the teachers sometimes held their children late or transported them to a place where her husband or babysitter could get them.
"They did so much out of the goodness of their heart to help me get through school," Robles recalled. "It's why I'm so excited to be back here serving my community."
Hard work earns rewards
For her hard work and determination, Robles received the UCSF Alumni Association's Most Motivated Student Award. "Loeta is a fantastic example of dedication and commitment," says Dabby Perry, PhD., associate dean for education and student affairs, who worked with Robles to help her attain the prerequisites she needed for dental school.
Today, Robles owns the very practice where she started as a 16-year-old sterilization assistant. Beckett, who sold the practice to Robles in October 2015, has been a mentor and "second mother" to her for more than 20 years. Much of the clinic's team has remained intact since Robles started her after-school job, contributing to the clinic's family atmosphere.
Working in her hometown, it's not uncommon for Robles to treat former teachers and classmates. And when patients ask her where she went to school, she simply points across the street to Pleasant Valley High School. It turns out you really can go home again.