Outreach program inspires future dentists
Strains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” soar from dental student Ryan Trevino’s ukulele at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry as he strolls among rows of intent junior high and high school students. This Saturday morning the students are more focused on the dental-related tools and objects on the lab tables before them than they are on the musician, but they appreciate his message.
The students — members of the college’s Future Dentist Club — are learning techniques to create dental crowns. The club’s 32 members from across the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex receive an insider’s perspective of dental school through monthly activities including taking dental impressions, polishing gold crowns and applying dental sealants to real extracted teeth.
“I feel like I am quite literally practicing to become a dentist, even at such a rudimentary level,” says Jason Nguyen, a high school senior and this year’s Future Dentist Club president. “The club presents aspects of science that I have never encountered. My interest in science, while already high, has definitely grown.”
The Future Dentist Club is the newest component of the college’s highly successful Bridge to Dentistry, a prekindergarten through postdoctoral education pipeline program that gives younger students an introduction to the importance of oral health and dental professions while providing high schoolers, college students and recent bachelor’s degree grads in-depth exposure to dental careers and academic skills enhancement.
Reaching nearly 69,000 elementary schoolchildren and more than 11,000 middle school, high school and college students since its inception in the mid-’90s, Bridge to Dentistry has become a national model for increasing diversity in dental professions. In recognition of the program’s potential to do more, Bridge to Dentistry received a boost in 2012 through a $3.4 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Center of Excellence program.
“Dentistry to me is creating a miracle out of materials,” says Trevino, a second-year dental student and 2011 Texas A&M University graduate, who volunteered to assist Bridge to Dentistry through the Future Dentist Club during the club’s campus visit. “I want these kids to see beyond what’s in front of them and on to what they can make of it. The ukulele is a way to connect with them; it’s a metaphor for bringing something beautiful out of thin air.”
High school freshman Andrew Tran is a two-year member of the club who was skeptical at first but now attends monthly meetings with enthusiasm.
“My mother got me involved in the program,” he says. “At first I groaned at the thought of waking up early on a Saturday morning. But as time progressed, I enjoyed coming to FDC.”
Dr. Ernestine Lacy, professor and executive director of student development and multicultural affairs, leads the college’s Bridge to Dentistry efforts to create a student population representative of the state’s demographics in order to reach underserved communities. Texas A&M Baylor College of Dentistry now leads the nation’s dental schools in underrepresented minority enrollment, currently at 39 percent of the student body.
Lacy, a TAMBCD alumnus who taught high school math before deciding to enroll in dental school, takes great personal interest in the success of individual students and cheers for their progress at every educational phase. Being able to call them “Dr.” is the ultimate reward, Lacy says.
“I’m proud when Bridge to Dentistry students achieve a dental education and then join us as dental professionals,” she says. “That is the culmination of all of the steps along the way.”
High school seniors such as Akeira Warner are soaking up their time in the program.
“My favorite thing about the club is that I am surrounded by people who have the same interests as me, and I can do what dental students do in their first year,” Warner says. “Future Dentist Club exposes me to a lot of things and keeps me interested. The different materials and gadgets we use are amazing.”
For Warner, like others, participation in the club is not just about the here and now.
“I would like to be a general dentist,” she says. “I am also looking into forensic odontology.”
Trevino is inspired to continue his mentoring role.
“I love working with kids,” he says. “If you catch them at the right age and spark that wonder, there’s no telling where they will go. The Future Dentist Club may be the factor that allows them to grasp their potential, that if they believe in themselves they could become a dentist.”