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NYU’s ‘Saturday Academy’ engages teens, looks to increase diversity in dentistry

April 25, 2019

By Michelle Manchir

Graduation day
Dr. Lorel Burns, bottom row, far left, and Dr. Cheryline Pezzullo, bottom row, far right, stand with the 2018 graduating Saturday Academy class during the ceremony Dec. 1, 2018.

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New York — Groups of high school students in New York City spend every other Saturday during the fall semester learning to make mouthguards, cleaning teeth and filling cavities on typodonts and taking impressions for dentures.

The students’ hands-on sneak peek into dentistry, dubbed the Saturday Academy, is a result of the brainstorming and work of Drs. Cheryline Pezzullo and Lorel Burns.

Dr. Burns said she was inspired to launch the program after attending a session at the ADA annual meeting in 2012 as a second-year dental student about how certain minority groups are underrepresented in dentistry.

At the same meeting, Dr. Burns, a 2015 NYU School of Dentistry graduate, encountered dental students from other universities who were presenting information about student-led programs at their schools to help uplift underrepresented students and engage them with the profession.

“That was enlightening to me and validating to me,” said Dr. Burns. “I was motivated to come back to NYU with an idea.”

She took that idea, came up with a curriculum and got a green light to move forward with it from the director of student affairs. She also teamed up with her classmate, Dr. Pezzullo, who was involved with the Hispanic Student Dental Association, to make Saturday Academy happen. The plan: to help engage teens from underrepresented communities with dentistry so they see it as a viable profession, while also guiding them through the college application process.

The first class of about 20 students was recruited for the fall of 2013, with the then-students relying on word of mouth and outreach programs to find students from underrepresented communities. Drs. Pezzullo and Burns led the program, using half of the class time to discuss resume-building, interview skills, filling out college applications, essay writing and other essentials for accessing higher education. Parents and guardians were encouraged to attend some of the sessions, which focus on financial aid. The second half of the course usually involved a dental activity at a university laboratory.

“It makes it real for them. They see dentistry can be a multifaceted career choice; it’s not doing fillings,” said Dr. Pezzullo.

Since that first class, a total of 108 students have participated in the program. Students fill out a survey after finishing, and Dr. Burns said surveys from students who attended the first five years of the program showed that almost half of them remained interested in dentistry as a profession. 2019 is the first year that Saturday Academy graduates can apply to dental school. More than 70 percent of participants are expected to be the first in their family to attend college.

Drs. Burns and Pezzullo are now both faculty members at the NYU College of Dentistry but remain advisors for the program, which continues to be led by volunteer dental students and supported by the college. It is never difficult to recruit student volunteers, Dr. Burns said.

In 2018, fourth-year NYU dental student Wendell Carmona and third-year dental student Vanessa Cortinas led the workshops.

Mr. Carmona said he sees participating with the program as a way to be a mentor for students with backgrounds similar to his. This is his fourth year volunteering with the program, and he keeps in touch with the some past participants who’ve emailed him asking for help with essay writing or to serve as a reference.

“In high school, I didn’t have as many resources as I would’ve liked in terms of finding a college or how to go about discovering my interests,” said Mr. Carmona, who grew up in a suburb of New York City.

Ms. Cortinas said she likes being able to interact with the students, encourage them and show them that they’re capable of doing things they may not have known about.

“We give them knowledge they didn’t have before and show them dentistry is something they can do,” she said. “They see us as their leaders and realize they can follow our path.”

To be sure, showing students from underrepresented communities that people who look like them are pursuing and serving as dentists, is an essential intention of the program.

“Representation matters,” said Dr. Pezzullo. “For patients, especially in New York City, we have people from different areas and it’s important that they can connect through language, culture, and see clinicians who look like them and really understand where they’re coming from.”

NYU College of Dentistry Saturday Academy is recruiting for their fall 2019 cohort. For more information about the Saturday Academy, visit https://dental.nyu.edu/globalreach/saturday-academy.html.