By LAURIE KAISER
Published August 7, 2023
The personal journey that led Samantha Williams, a Spelman College junior biology major and aspiring dentist, to a classroom at the School of Dental Medicine last month began with a cleft palate and a series of surgeries required to correct it.
Williams was one of 30 students from across the country who took part in Destination Dental School (DDS) July 17-25 in Squire Hall, following virtual instruction over the previous six Saturdays. Now in its third year, DDS is free and open to underrepresented undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students who have a keen interest in the dental profession.
A Texas native who is now scouting dental schools, Williams said she was born with a cleft palate and underwent several surgeries during her childhood.
“From that experience, I realized I wanted to help other kids,” Williams said, adding that she’s interested specifically in orthodontics and craniofacial dentistry.
During the week, Williams and the other participants, who range in age from 19 to 37, shadowed current dental residents, engaged in hands-on learning activities including resin placement, alginate impressions, suturing and bleaching trays, and learned about different dental specialties. They also had the opportunity to hone their leadership skills and work with UB dental students to prepare for the Dental Admission Test (DAT) and engage in mock interviews. More than 70 dental school faculty, staff and students volunteered to help make the event possible.
“Our unique pathway program is intended to reduce inequities in the oral health field, which will lead to better health outcomes for everyone,” said Thikriat Al-Jewair, assistant dean of equity, diversity and inclusion in the School of Dental Medicine.
“This includes making the dental school application process more seamless and establishing a home at UB for students who are underrepresented in the profession.”
UB dental alumna Arian Johnson founded Destination Dental School in 2021 after realizing there was a lack of resources for students like herself when she applied to dental school in 2017. She received the necessary support from the School of Dental Medicine’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) to make Destination Dental School a reality.
In 2022, the DDS program partnered with the Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway to Dentistry program to combine virtual and in-person events.
During one of this year’s first on-campus sessions, which focused on how race and socioeconomic factors affect health outcomes, students learned the importance of not only joining the dental profession, but also of serving marginalized and low-income communities. This includes parts of Buffalo.
“I’ve lived in Buffalo for 15 years and only recently realized that it’s ranked No. 3 among U.S. cities for poverty. Even more disturbing is the fact that more than 1 in 4 children in Buffalo live in poverty,” said presenter Ellyce Clonan, a dental public health specialist, consultant with the American Dental Association and 2020 graduate of the UB dental school.
“As health care providers, it’s easy to focus on the clinical care component of health,” Clonan said, “but the truth is that only accounts for 20% of what informs an individual’s health.”
Income and employment, along with other socioeconomic factors, determine 40%, while health behaviors, such as nutrition, alcohol consumption and smoking, influence 30% of those outcomes.
Clonan and dentists Brittany McCrorey and Megan Cloidt, both of whom work at the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, explained the importance of these factors, as well as why preventative care is preferable to intervening after individuals get sick.
They went on to discuss the disparity between dentists’ races and the populations they serve, which is also reflected in dental school students. For instance, the percentage of American dental students who are Black dropped slightly, from 6.7% in 2005 to 6.2% in 2020, while 12.6% of the U.S. population was Black in 2020, according to the U.S. Census.
Making the dental profession more accessible to individuals from underrepresented races and cultural backgrounds is the main goal of DDS, along with introducing students to UB, said Wendell Carmona, director of Destination Dental School.
“We also want to expand their perceptions of all that is available to them,” Carmona added.
Outcomes of DDS are impressive. Participants from 2021 and 2022 responded to pre- and post-program surveys that measured changes in their perceived knowledge, preparedness and likelihood of applying to dental school. Knowledge improved in every category, particularly in how to conduct research, how to interview and how to improve their dental school application.
The student volunteers participating in the on-campus portion of DDS highlighted the best that UB has to offer.
“UB dental school is a great place to build the path you want to pursue,” said Nicholas Servadio, adding that there are many ways to get involved on campus and in the community. “I’m looking forward to my fourth year in a full-time clinical setting.”
Jennifer Okewunmi, a rising third-year student, told the group: “UB chose me. From the start, the school has been beyond amazing. Everyone has been so nice and welcoming.”
That welcoming feeling also made an impression on Williams, who said UB is an attractive option.
“I anticipate that dental school will be hard,” she said. “It’s important to have a supportive community around you.”
For more information, visit the Destination Dental School website.