World’s first dental school graduates its first black summa cum laude recipient
June 13, 2016
First: Dr. Tera Poole sheds a tear as she gives a commencement speech as class president last month at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. Minutes before the speech, Dr. Poole had learned she was summa cum laude. Days later, she would find out she became the first black summa cum laude recipient in the world’s first dental school.
— Known as the first dental school in the world, the University of Maryland School of Dentistry made more history in May when it graduated its first black summa cum laude recipient after 176 years.
Dr. Tera Poole tried to keep her nerves as calm as possible as she stood in front of a packed auditorium.
The Ohioan had learned she was the dental school’s top ranking student just minutes before and now she was about to give a speech.
“I was class president for four years but this was easily the biggest speech I’ve given. I did cry,” she said, laughing. “But I got a lot of support from the audience.”
Unknown to her, the audience and school faculty and administrators at the time, Dr. Poole had just made history.
Dr. Poole said her fiancé encouraged her to see if she reached this milestone at the school.
“He was just really curious about it,” she said. After speaking with a recruiter about it, the recruiter managed to have someone look into the school’s history.
Two days later, it was confirmed.
“When I found out, to me, it was more, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. It’s a nice fun fact,’” she said.
The significance of her accomplishment didn’t sink in until the messages started coming.
“I’m hearing from a lot of minority students in the health care field who say they’re looking up to me,” she said. “Now, it’s something more. Now I’m really appreciating it.”
The school graduated its first African-American student in 1972 after the entire University of Maryland Baltimore system committed to enroll more underrepresented minority groups in the late 1960s, said Dr. Mark Reynolds, dental school dean. Today, underrepresented minorities comprise about 18 percent of the dental school student body.
“Our first African-American graduate was Elton Preston Maddox, Jr., who came from Morgan State College,” he added. “Our first African-American woman graduate was Debra Antoinette Bass, also from Morgan State. She graduated in 1977.”
Thirteen years after Dr. Bass graduated, Dr. Poole was born. And growing up, Dr. Poole said, she was exposed to dentistry at an early age. Her father is a general dentist.
“I hung out at the office doing chores or filing records,” she said. “But he never forced [pursuing dentistry] on me or my brother. I wanted to be an architect.”
It wasn’t until she was 16 years old when she began looking into her dad’s work more seriously.
“I loved the patient interaction and the aspects of designs,” she said. “I thought, ‘You know, this could be it for me.’”
After graduating from Ohio University, she almost didn’t go to the University of Maryland to study dentistry. She had received an offer from another school.
“But my fiancé and I decided to visit, and I just fell in love with the people there, and the facilities were state-of-the-art,” she said. “I knew it was the right place for me.”
The school has a tradition of announcing the top-ranking student on graduation day, Dr. Poole said. To help clear her mind before giving the commencement speech as class president, Dr. Poole leafed through the graduation program when she saw, for the first time, her name as a summa cum laude recipient.
“I just said, ‘What?!’” she said when she saw her name. “But I couldn’t jump up for joy in front of everybody. I had to keep my nerves calm.”
Dr. Reynolds said Dr. Poole, both as a summa cum laude honoree and class president, exemplifies the type of academic and leadership qualities the school seeks to cultivate in their students.
“Her accomplishments, along with summa cum laude co-honoree Ye Seul Chun, are an affirmation of our institution’s efforts to graduate multicultural cohorts of dental professionals to effectively serve a culturally diverse population,” he said.
Today, Dr. Poole has left the East Coast to begin a three-year orthodontics residency program at the University of California San Francisco in July.
In addition, Dr. Poole said she hopes to open her own private practice in the future, and restart a blog she put on hold while at dental school. She also plans to share her experiences as a new dentist by guest blogging for the ADA New Dentist Now blog at newdentistblog.ada.org
“I want to tell people pursuing a career in health care, especially minorities, that they can reach their goal,” she said. “If they need to, they can use me as inspiration.”