First Impressions: Program Helps Prepare Undergrads for Dental School

The relative lack of minorities in the dental profession never deterred Devin Stewart, who is African American, from pursuing his dream of becoming a dentist.

As early as high school, Stewart sought advice from dentists in his community and shadowed them during summer breaks. “I discovered that people with beautiful teeth and smiles seemed to fascinate me,” he says. “I want to create the same experience I received as a child while visiting the dentist and make a difference in someone’s oral health — and life as a whole.”

This year, the senior biology major at Jackson State University was accepted by the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s (UMMC) School of Dentistry. He credits the Student National Dental Association (SNDA) — particularly its dental school preparation program, Impressions — with preparing him for the dental admission test and the UMMC admissions interview, as well as familiarizing him with the everyday work of a dentist.

“I found the hands-on activities to be very beneficial,” he says, “because it allows pre-dental students the chance to get a feel for what dentistry will be like once they enter into the profession.”

Students perform oral exams in the University of Florida College of Dentistry’s Impressions program (photo courtesy of the University of Florida College of Dentistry)
Students perform oral exams in the University of Florida College of Dentistry’s Impressions program (photo courtesy of the University of Florida College of Dentistry)

SNDA was formed in 1972 as an auxiliary of the National Dental Association — the professional association of minority dentists — to promote diversity in dental school enrollment and support improvements in dental care in disadvantaged communities.

SNDA launched the Impressions program in 1999 with the goal of reaching out directly to minority undergraduates to help them become stronger dental school candidates. During the 2014-2015 school year, 30 to 40 SNDA chapters — of the approximately 50 active chapters at dental schools nationwide — will host one-day Impressions events for more than 1,000 dental-school hopefuls, says SNDA President Christopher Cathey, a third-year dental student at UMMC.

“[The program is] simply a concerted effort to make strides in eliminating healthcare disparities in dentistry nationwide by providing an avenue for underrepresented minorities to have the same resources as an applicant who isn’t underrepresented or who has adequate resources to get into dental school,” Cathey says.

Dr. Wilhelmina F. O’Reilly, assistant dean for student affairs at UMMC’s School of Dentistry, says the school has participated in Impressions annually since 2006. A typical Impressions event agenda includes writing workshops, mock interviews, presentations by dental school admissions and financial aid officials, and panel discussions featuring current dental students and residents. The national organization assists local chapters with organizing the events and defraying costs.

True to its name, the program also gives undergrads the opportunity to take dental impressions on volunteer patients. For many participants, this is their first real-life experience performing a dental procedure.

Although Impressions is designed primarily for minority students, it has begun to attract non-minority students as well, Cathey says. And while no nationwide statistics are available, he estimates that 85 to 90 percent of participants in UMMC School of Dentistry’s program are from underrepresented minorities.

In addition to critical hands-on experience, the program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to network with school administrators and current dental students — a part of the experience Stewart found invaluable.

Students in the Impressions dental program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s School of Dentistry (photo courtesy of the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Dentistry)
Students in the Impressions dental program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s School of Dentistry (photo courtesy of the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Dentistry)

“One of the most important pieces of advice the admissions committee gave me was making sure I apply early,” Stewart says. “They informed me that they would be accepting numerous applications for the upcoming school year, and it was in my best interest to get into the first batch.”

Dental students in the program advised Stewart on the best ways to prepare for the dental admission test, including helpful books and software. “They also gave me helpful interview tips, including the types of questions to expect, and most importantly, making sure I practice for the interview,” he says.

In 2002, the Institute of Medicine warned that minorities often receive unequal treatment in the U.S. healthcare system. Among other factors, “healthcare providers’ biases, prejudices, and uncertainty when treating minorities can contribute to healthcare disparities,” the report observed, even though “prejudice is not always recognized or deliberate.”

The Institute recommended that, among other measures, more individuals of color be recruited into medical professions. However, it stopped short of outlining specific ways of achieving that goal.

According to a study by the University of Colorado, in 2012, only 5 percent of U.S. dental school graduates were African American and 7 percent were Hispanic or Latino, indicating a need to recruit more students from these underrepresented minorities.

Based on more recent numbers, it appears that programs like Impressions may be having a positive effect. Since 2012, underrepresented minority students (including those identifying as more than one race or ethnicity) have comprised, on average, more than one-third of all students at the University of Florida College of Dentistry. That trend is likely to continue. The fall 2015 entering class, while not yet finalized, is currently made up of 42 percent minority students. This number includes Asian, black or African American, and Hispanic or Latino students, as well as students of multiple races.

Teresa A. Dolan, who was dean of the University of Florida College of Dentistry for 10 years and supported the Impressions program, says she believes the educational environment is richer and conversations deeper when the opinions and views of individuals from diverse backgrounds are included and respected.

“As the first college graduate and dentist in my extended family, I can understand why some students might feel that a career in dentistry or any of the health professions might be unattainable, or at least a little mysterious in terms of what it takes to successfully navigate the educational system to become a dentist,” Dolan says. “So the program helps demystify dental school and the dental application process.”

At the SNDA, plans are under way to provide scholarships to students who participate in the Impressions program, opening the door for more minorities and disadvantaged students to enter the profession. Cathey also hopes to one day see a national version of Impressions that would provide students exposure to dental schools across the country.

“I would like to implement a high school component,” he says. “I think it is very important to spark the interest of dentistry as soon as we can, before students begin college. This program can be a great tool in helping to recruit students at the high school level.”

Like other students who will take another step toward pursuing their dreams this fall, Stewart is eager to begin his training at UMMC’s School of Dentistry in August. And he has advice for others who share his passion.

“Although minorities are underrepresented in the field of dentistry, that should not stop you from pursuing it,” he says. “If anything, you should be encouraged to pursue it even more. That way, you can one day give back to underserved, minority communities and improve their oral healthcare.”●

Michael Rene Zuzel is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.