Little did Todd Walker realize that his earlier travels in Brazil would start him on a path of civic engagement based in dentistry, but today, as a third year student at Tufts Dental School, he’s helping fellow students learn Portuguese so they can better treat Brazilian patients.

“When I started treating patients last June, I quickly saw that I had many more patients than other third year students. The reason was simple: I speak Portuguese and therefore attracted many people from the local Brazilian community,” he recounted recently.

With Boston home to the fastest growing Brazilian immigrant population in the country, Walker saw an opportunity to reach out to this community by helping fellow students learn Portuguese. Tufts students provide care, under faculty guidance, at low cost to local residents.

He put together a plan and applied for funding from the Tisch College Civic Engagement Fund (CEF), which supports Tufts students looking to create change in their community. Armed with matching funds from the Dental School, Walker organized a cadre of five teachers—two first year, two third year, and one fourth year dental student. They meet three times a week with about 60 students, training them in conversational Portuguese and dental terminology.

“Each year, hundreds of Portuguese-speaking patients have a difficult time receiving dental care because there are not enough dental students who can communicate in Portuguese, but we’re starting to turn that around,” Walker said.

Among those assisting him is Arlene Pimentel, a first year dental student, who grew up as the U.S.-born daughter of Brazilian immigrants.

“I love the language and I love to teach,” said Pimentel, who majored in Portuguese as an undergraduate at UMass Amherst. “This program puts those two things together and lets me help immigrants get the care they need.”

Also participating as a teacher is first year dental student Elizabeth Brachowicz, who was born and raised in Brazil, but who moved to the U.S. when she was 16. She said, “I understand that having a health provider who can understand you is very important, and through this program I can help local Brazilians.”

The first 12-week course got underway in late November, and, so far, has been enthusiastically received by participating students.

“We have a very motivated group of students,” said Walker. “If I can get a couple of dozen students comfortably communicating in Portuguese, it will be a success.”

Originally published February 2009