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Students, Institute grads, dental society rep talk about what works

Dental student leaders and members and graduates of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership shared their unique experiences as underrepresented minorities and mentors at the April 26 Outreach Forum: Increasing Diversity in the Dental Profession.

As a child, Dr. George Jenkins had a dentist who encouraged his interest in dentistry. Growing up in the inner city of Newark, N.J., "I got cues early on that education was the way out." Now, as director of the office of multicultural affairs at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey/New Jersey Dental School, Dr. Jenkins seeks ways to mentor youth in his hometown.

"We need to increase underrepresented minority students but face difficult challenges here," said Dr. Jenkins, including a high drop-out rate among minority high school students. "All too often kids are not interested in pursuing college, then we come along and try to hit them with dentistry, and it's not always realistic."

For his personal leadership project for the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, Dr. Jenkins is working with a new magnet high school in Newark to share information on dental careers and give students the tools and study habits needed to achieve their goals.

Dr. Jose-Luis Ruiz, a member of the inaugural class of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, credits the Institute with making one of his long-time goals a reality.

Through his faculty post at the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, Dr. Ruiz founded "USC Latinos for Dental Careers," aiming to increase the number of Hispanic dentists and hygienists in Southern California to better serve this growing population.

"I know now that anything is possible," said Dr. Ruiz. "Our next step is to secure funds for scholarships for some of these students."

Dr. Cedric Takeo Lewis of the 2005 ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership began his career working in a community health center in Hawaii. "The kids who come to the center for care do not reflect dentists in Hawaii, so they have no one to look to as a mentor," said Dr. Lewis, who launched a career mentoring program for high school students in a small community outside Honolulu for his Institute leadership project.

"We received 100 applications for the summer mentorship program," said Dr. Lewis. "We talked about careers, how to be a dentist, learned some dental terminology, dental anatomy, basic techniques, tooth preparations and talked about scholarship opportunities. Scholarships are often the biggest challenges."

His initiative was rewarding on many levels. "These kids are just so touched that professional people reach out to them and are truly interested in them," he said after the first year of the program.

Michelle Cunningham, director of communications for the Metro Denver Dental Society, shared information on the MDDS' successful Explorer Post program, forged through a partnership with the national Learning for Life Health Careers Exploring initiative. The program matches students with a particular career interest to local sponsoring organizations like MDDS, which then offers programs in dental offices and laboratories.

"We've grown to 37 this year, which is modest growth over time, but some of these students travel two hours to get there," said Ms. Cunningham. "These are not kids whose parents are dentists."

Passionate mentors are key, she added. "Our dentist leader grew up poor and eventually got a job working in a dental office, then pursued a career in dentistry and became an orthodontist," said Ms. Cunningham. "Her perspective shows kids there are ways to do this."

When he came to the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry, Dr. Damon Ross felt his classmates were perhaps better prepared for dental education.

"Histology came up, and everyone was talking about what they knew about histology, classes they had taken," said the 2006 UNC graduate and member of the ADA Council on Dental Education and Licensure's Ad-Hoc Committee on Diversity to Attract Qualified Underrepresented Minorities Into Dentistry. Dr. Ross earned his undergraduate degree at an historically black college and university. "I knew that I didn't have the opportunity to learn the same things my fellow classmates had learned."

As president of the Student National Dental Association, Dr. Ross sought ways to help students in the historically black colleges and universities system prepare for dental careers. He told advisors at HBCUs about recommended coursework and summer enrichment like the health careers opportunity program he completed in 2001.

The SNDA also offers a program called Impressions, where college and pre-dental students are invited to dental schools for guest speakers, financial aid lectures, typodont exercises and mock interview sessions.

Dr. Peter Robinson, chair of the ad-hoc committee, hailed Impressions for its peer mentoring.

"Interaction between dental students and college students is so much more meaningful than me going out there to talk to them about dental careers," said Dr. Robinson. "College students look at them and think, 'I could be like that person.'"

This summer, the Student National Dental Association is sponsoring a basketball fundraiser in Nashville where dental students from the North compete against those from the South. Proceeds go to a scholarship fund with half donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Dr. Jessica Figueroa, a 2006 graduate of the New York University College of Dentistry, president of the Student Hispanic Dental Association and an ad-hoc committee member, coordinates programs that help Hispanic high school and college students pursue dental careers. Dr. Figueroa advised the forum attendees to provide financial aid counseling for minority students, as financing dental education "is very daunting."

"People wonder, 'What if I don't succeed? What if I don't graduate?'" she said. "They need people to support them. Their parents are often afraid of failure, too, and reluctant to consider the options available to them."

DezBaa Damon, a third-year dental student at the A.T. Still University, Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health, is president of the Society of American Indian Dentists-ASDOH chapter, and also a member of the ADA ad-hoc committee.

SAID-ASDOH has held tours of the dental school and lectures for interested pre-dental students and career fairs for high school and college students. "Currently we are developing a CD that would help American Indian students in preparing and applying to dental school," said Ms. Damon. "There are many ADA and ADEA resources available, and we are making this information much more focused on American Indians."

Ms. Damon is an active role model for youth thanks to people like Dr. George Blue Spruce, president of the Society of American Indian Dentists and a fellow ADA ad-hoc committee member.

"SAID has always been available as a resource for pre-dental and dental students, hygienists, assistants and dentists," she said. "Many pre-dental students are now contacting us for help in applying to dental school."

"This is only the beginning of what can be done," Dr. Marsha Butler, vice president of global and professional relations for Colgate-Palmolive Co., and ad-hoc committee member, said of the forum's presenters. "Obviously these young people are off to a good start and we have to catch up."

Noel Bishop, Connecticut State Dental Association executive director, added: "This is an excellent program. I only wish all the state executive directors could be here today to listen to this."