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MyView: I went pre-dental clubbing

And found some really focused, highly motivated future colleagues

September 01, 2014

By Eric K. Curtis, D.D.S.

Eric K. Curtis, D.D.S.
Eric K. Curtis, D.D.S.
I'm a quiet guy, an introvert, a listener much more than a talker. My one-on-one communications repertoire leans heavily on folded arms, thoughtful nods and the strategic insertion of feedback tokens known as continuers — uh-huh, really, wow — that encourage a speaker to natter on without interruption. People often tell me they feel refreshed by our conversation.

Shove me onstage and my persona shifts dramatically. Facing a crowd, my native reserve slides aside, default-mode shyness evaporating under the heat lamps of audience expectation. I gesticulate. I pantomime. My gasps and grins go full body. My voice rolls and coasts — high and low, fast and slow, loud and soft. Even my pauses project enthusiasm. I never want my energized performance, powered by the confluence of ebullience and nervousness, to be insensitive to audience response. As a natural-born listener, I try to make my presentations less lecture and more public conversation. I scan the crowd for facial cues and body language. I solicit comments. Facilitating a public conversation refreshes me as much as conducting private ones do other people.

So when Alexandra Quiroz asked me to speak to the University of Arizona Pre-Dental Club in April, I anticipated a pleasantly rejuvenating evening. I like talking with the collegiate set and absorbing the sort of hopeful electricity Alexandra exudes in buckets. The pre-dental club secretary, Alexandra is a UA microbiology major the university Honors College assigned me two years ago to mentor; she will enter Midwestern University College of Dental Medicine's class of 2018 in the fall. I looked forward to getting a reading on Alexandra's confreres, young folks hoping to become the next generation of dentists.

I don't think I was late, but by the time I climbed the stairs to the third-floor Sabino Room at the UA student union, 25 students were already waiting around the table. Polite, attentive, eager and intense, they seemed as unlike me at 22 as I could imagine. I'm pretty sure there was no pre-dental club when I was in college, but had there been, I wouldn't have been a member. I was too ambivalent in those days to commit myself publicly to a post-baccalaureate course of action. I got better scores on my GMAT than I did on the DAT. In fact, I remained so equivocal about dentistry through dental school that at graduation my class voted me "least likely to be practicing dentistry in three years."

In contrast to my callow vacillations, the UA Pre-Dental Club cohort comes finely tuned. For their $25 per semester dues, members spend hours giving oral hygiene instructions at various elementary schools. Several have already assisted with volunteer dental care projects overseas. The club's year-long list of volunteer activities, reflecting Tucson's cavalcade of community philanthropy, feels practically frenetic: Ben's Bells (a nonprofit organization promoting intentional kindness), Give Kids A Smile, HopeFest, Arizona Mission of Mercy, the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation AIDS Walk, the Tucson Medical Center Get Moving Race, the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk, Community Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Tucson Festival of Books Oral Education, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Cyclovia Tucson (an organization promoting safe travel on public roads), Brush up on HIV: Update for Oral Health Providers, American Cancer Society 2014 GALA and Buffelgrass & Burritos (an event aiming to remove destructive buffelgrass around Tucson). The lasting power of pre-dental clubbing is such that when I visited University of the Pacific's Dugoni School of Dentistry this spring, I encountered a graduating dental student still proudly wearing his UA Pre-Dental Club polo shirt.

I asked club members their motivations for pursuing a career in dentistry. Answers ranged from wanting to help others to the pleasure of working with one's hands to the gratification of constant social interaction to an obsession with teeth. I discussed professionalism, talking about how dentistry developed and how it functions in society now. I told the students that more than a job, dentistry is a calling. Dentistry calls on its practitioners to be their best, even when no one is looking, to be their smartest, most strategic, savvy, forward-thinking, humanitarian, patient, long-suffering, diplomatic selves. The evening's discourse may not have furnished a basis for any real reflection on professionalism, but it surely delivered potential talking points for dental school interviews. That's at least a start.

Pre-dental students hunger to hang out with dentists. One has arranged to get UA credit for completing a semester's internship in a dental office (note to Arizona's post-secondary institutions: college credit is a great idea), but most have to scramble for exposure. While dental schools require pre-dental students to spend hours shadowing dentists, dentists are often unwilling to endure the inconvenience of providing on-site demonstrations of their work. The students, concerned about being a nuisance, quickly become self-conscious about having to bird dog potential mentors. My plea to dentists — open your practices for a day or two each semester to pre-dental observers—goes out in tandem with an appeal to dental schools: let prospective students shadow dental students in clinic and faculty in faculty practices and count those hours among your total shadowing requirements.  

After the meeting I answered questions and took photos. I spent another hour or so discussing life's great questions with UA pre-dental undergraduate Ben Don, son of Tucson periodontist Dr. Damon Don and general dentist Dr. Kacy LaFleur. I left the student union feeling restored. Who doesn't enjoy spending time among people who want to be you? Not all pre-dents will go on to dental school, but all of them ought to move forward in life equipped with a deeper appreciation for dentistry. It's never too early to plant those seeds.

Dr. Curtis is a general dentist in Safford, Arizona, and editor of Inscriptions, the journal of the Arizona Dental Association. He is past president of the American Association of Dental Editors and Journalists and the American Academy of the History of Dentistry. His remarks, excerpted here with permission, originally appeared in the June/July issue of Inscriptions.