Third time’s the charm: Dr. ArNelle Wright shares her path to dentistry as a Black woman
February 19, 2021
Dr. Wright: "Sometimes, when patients see me they ask if I’m the doctor, even though my white coat has my name on it. I've even had patients question my credentials and where I’ve gone to school. And while some people might get offended, I actually use it to my advantage."
Growing up the youngest of four girls raised by a single mother, Dr. ArNelle Wright never had dental care until she found herself with a toothache in her junior year of high school.
Little did a gracious teacher, who took turns with her husband in taking a young Dr. Wright to and from dental appointments, realize that she was not only helping to change Dr. Wright’s smile but was also changing her life. It was those dental visits that piqued Dr. Wright’s interest in a future career in dentistry.
Dr. Wright's journey into dentistry is one that she describes as not linear, but rather, "zig-zag.” Being the first in her family to go to college, she took it a step further by becoming a dentist.
“So I'm in college, and I knew that I wanted to be a dentist, but I had no idea how to go about doing it,” she said. “My entire time in undergrad, I was pretty much feeling around in the dark. But once I finally declared that I was going to be a dentist, I did my research, looked at the requirements, and although I thought I was good enough to apply, I still was not ready.”
Her applications for dental school were rejected.
After college, Dr. Wright opted to attend graduate school instead, which became the best thing for her.
“[That experience] helped me mature,” she said. “It was like that second opportunity that I had to show and prove that I was qualified, and that I could do the work.”
Shortly after obtaining her master’s degree, and beginning a career as a high school science teacher, Dr. Wright decided to reapply to dental school. But she was rejected again due to her scores not being sent in earlier.
Still not wanting to give up on her dreams of becoming a dentist, Dr. Wright sat out a year and decided to apply a third time. This time, she finally got it.
“It was an amazing experience getting into dental school,” she said. “I wouldn't trade my route for anything because I was my best when I started. I was my most mature. I was my most aware. I was my most exposed and had the most knowledge and depth in the field. And I was committed. Whereas before, I knew I wanted to do this, but didn’t know how because I had never seen it done. I just needed a little bit more exposure to solidify and make it a commitment.”
Given her path into dentistry, Dr. Wright says that there are three things that she would advise the next generation of dentists.
"Number one, make sure that your ‘why’ is strong,” she said. “It has to surpass you, and be outside of the dollar amount because that's not going to keep you in the program.”
Number two: make sure you do your research and become familiar with what you're about to sign up for.
“One of the things that I talk about with my mentees is before you ever touch a tooth, or shake hands with patients, understand that there are relationships that have to be managed on your behalf and someone is an extension of you,” Dr. Wright said. “So you have to be able to both know and communicate what your expectations are, and be able to corral a group of people."
And number three: “Once you get in, you need to realize that the ball is already in motion so that you can hit the ground running,” she said.
Love: Dr. Wright poses for a photo with her family.
Navigating a field where there is a mass underrepresentation can be difficult as a Black woman, especially when trying to make a name for oneself.
“A lot of patients have in their mind, expect a tall white man, and not a black woman,” she said, based on her experience. “Especially when dealing with the older population. Sometimes, when patients see me they ask if I’m the doctor, even though my white coat has my name on it. I've even had patients question my credentials and where I’ve gone to school. And while some people might get offended, I actually use it to my advantage.”
Dr. Wright has stated that one of her goals is to create and help other dentists become value-driven professionals.
“People who strive for excellence, not only in their treatment but in their communication,” she said. “When you are communicating with patients, with your labs, and leading your teams, you want to pour into them that you're the leader of the team. This isn’t something you don't learn in dental school, you just get a snippet of it. So in addition to practicing well and doing great treatments, I want to teach people the value of the leadership aspect of dentistry and building a strong business when it comes down to their dental unit. Especially for people of color because it puts us in a different economic and financial position to be a business owner.”