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ADA Foundation scholarships help put dental career within reach for 54 students

February 06, 2012

By Jean Williams, ADA News Staff

Tuition. The word has seven letters, but it might as well have four these days. That’s because rising education costs have become nearly obscene for some students.

Mr. Gordon

“In terms of the increasing loans, I think you’ve seen it across the board in education,” said 24-year-old dental student Ross Gordon. “It’s an old system in an emerging economy demanding different things from students who graduate from it.”

To alleviate some of the financial burden, the ADA Foundation Scholarship Program annually awards scholarships to students like Mr. Gordon, who are pursuing a career in dentistry. A second-year student at the Ohio State University College of Dentistry, Mr. Gordon is one of 54 dental students who won 2011-12 scholarships.

According to figures from the American Dental Education Association 2010 senior survey, dental students graduate with remarkably high debt, averaging $177,848 in 2010, which can be off-putting for some students.

“I hear talk of using the Internet and social media to reduce the costs [by reducing classroom time]. I think it’s really going to have to be. Otherwise, it’s going to get to a point where I don’t know who can afford it,” Mr. Gordon said. “Unfortunately, quality people may not be able to afford to go to school.”

ADA Foundation scholarships are awarded to second-year, predoctoral dental students and include both dental students and underrepresented minority dental students. Additionally, from the entire pool of applicants, up to four winners are granted scholarships named and funded in honor of Dr. Robert B. Dewhirst and Robert J. Sullivan. All scholarships are $2,500.

Mr. Tajik
Despite having earned both a biomedical engineering degree and an MBA and having entered a corporate career, scholarship winner Kasra Tajik decided to foot the bill to make a course correction, switching from business to dentistry. “I realized that the corporate world, the big group meetings with a lot of Type A personalities, lacked the personal interactions that I’d have with dentistry,” said Mr. Tajik, a student at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California. His sister is a dentist.

Mr. Tajik, who plans to pursue prosthodontics, rued the annual cost of purchasing equipment for lab classes. “You get to keep it. It’s yours, but it’s expensive,” he said.

Mr. Tajik, 32, plans to use his scholarship to defray some of these school-related costs, which may then give him the financial flexibility to consider volunteering in April with dentists in areas of the world where access to care issues are critical.

“The organizers of these trips usually can’t afford to pay for the students to go, so they ask for the students to fund-raise or somehow pay for it themselves,” Mr. Tajik said. “I’m applying to go to Colombia.”

The scholarship will free up some personal funds to make that trip more feasible.

Mr. Hernandez
Scholarship winner Jesse Hernandez, who won the underrepresented minority dental student award, is also a career switcher. “I had been a firefighter in Orlando, Fla., for 7½ years,” said Mr. Hernandez, 29, who attends the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I was getting burned out on some of the things that I was seeing. There were a lot of fatalities with children. I think that’s what got to me the most. I had some close calls, too, that kind of worried me. It’s obviously a dangerous job.”

His strong desire to continue serving others led him to dentistry after he shadowed a dentist friend for a day. But the financial sacrifice is great. “It’s pretty expensive even if you’re a resident of a state and paying in-state tuition,” Mr. Hernandez said. “I’m not a resident of Alabama, and so I’m paying out-of-state tuition, which is roughly twice as much as in-state tuition. On top of that, I’m completely living off loans. I don’t even want to think about it.”

Like Mr. Tajik and Mr. Gordon, Mr. Hernandez is confident that a career in dentistry will pay off in many ways. He plans to work in the public sector as a general dentist and pay off his loans sooner rather than later.

“I read a lot—the dental magazines and dental articles,” he said. “People are worried about tuition rising, especially in public schools, due to the bad economy. They’re worried that more graduates are going to opt to open up private practices as opposed to working in public health centers because of the increased debt burden. But I was raised humbly, and I don’t think it’ll be that difficult to pay off the debt even though I’m going to have enormous debt. I just don’t see myself feeling the need to buy this huge house and fancy car. I just don’t need all of that.”