Pre-dental pathway programs partner to improve diversity in dentistry – UBNow: News and views for UB faculty and staff

Thirty students from around the United States traveled to the School of Dental Medicine this summer to take part in the university’s Destination Dental School and Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program, initiatives that aim to remove barriers to careers in dentistry for underrepresented undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students.

The two UB programs, which previously operated separately, partnered this summer to combine their virtual and in-person events and activities. The goal is to provide participants with an understanding of the day-to-day life of a dentist and dental student, as well as help strengthen their dental school applications, and develop their skills as researchers.

The Destination Dental School program — founded in 2021 by UB dental alumna Arian Johnson and organized by the school’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — welcomed its second cohort of 22 students. The cohort was joined by eight students in the Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program, which was launched in 2018 through a partnership between the school and the Seneca Nation Health System.

Participants represented 17 U.S. states and ranged in age from 19 to 45.

“The Destination Dental School and Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program share the same goal: to increase diversity in the future dental workforce,” says Thikriat Al-Jewair, assistant dean for equity, diversity and inclusion in the School of Dental Medicine. “We saw this shared purpose as a new opportunity for a partnership to ensure that disadvantaged and underrepresented graduates from both programs were equipped with the necessary tools to successfully enter dental school.

“The partnership, which involved merging activities, was impactful in that it enhanced the curriculum, enriched students’ didactic and hands-on experience, provided them with additional resources, and expanded the length of the Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program, which has historically been only one week long,” she says. “Collaboration is key to advancing inclusive excellence at the School of Dental Medicine.”

Over the course of seven weeks throughout June and July, students took part in presentations that explored the various specialties within dental medicine and networking opportunities with local dentistry leaders, learned about the admissions process for dental school, and completed capstone research projects.

This year, the programs expanded dental school application assistance to include more extensive preparation for the Dental Admission Test (DAT) — a standardized exam required for entry into dental school. The students were provided DAT tutoring services and study resources, as well as mock admission interviews and resume reviews.

The programs also cover the cost of the DAT, and participants who apply to the UB School of Dental Medicine will receive an application fee waiver; both rare benefits for students applying to dental school.

The programs culminated with a week of in-person activities that included an oral surgery boot camp; hands-on clinical simulations that taught tooth anatomy and the process for creating fillings and taking impressions; clinical specialty rotations where participants shadowed UB dental students; and tours of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Students in the Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program also toured facilities within the Seneca Nation Health System.

“Destination Dental School was such an amazing opportunity for our students. I believe this early exposure will be important in their preparation for dental school in terms of knowing what to expect and inspiring further exploration prior,” says Wendell Carmona, director of Destination Dental School, volunteer clinical assistant professor in the School of Dental Medicine and managing clinical director for Aspen Dental in Niagara Falls.

“These types of programs don’t come around often. Students should take advantage of this opportunity because they’re here to help you and give you all of the resources that you need,” says 2022 Destination Dental School participant Hawa Sano, a junior studying human biology at the University at Albany who has dreamed of becoming a dentist since the age of 5.

“It shows underrepresented minorities in the field of dentistry that we’re not alone,” she says. “You don’t see a lot of Black or women dentists. It was great to meet students who look like me and have the same love of dentistry that I do.”

Latino, African American and Native American people make up around 5%, 4% and 0.2% of dentists, respectively, despite representing a larger percentage of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute.

Pathway programs have proven to be an effective solution, increasing enrollment of underrepresented students in dental schools by 54%, according to a report by the Journal of the American Dental Association.

By increasing the enrollment of underrepresented students in dental schools, the programs will help address the shortage of dentists of color.

“Native American communities continue to grapple with historical traumas, including the harms caused by inadequate, culturally insensitive and abusive practices associated with boarding schools that were the primary source of oral health care for children forced away from their families and cut off from their culture. While these schools were shut down decades ago, this led to generations of mistrust in the health care system and still presents a hurdle to modern tribal and public health care systems,” says Joseph M. Salamon, director of the Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program, clinical instructor in the School of Dental Medicine and dental services director for the Seneca Nation Health System.

“The concept of racial concordance aims to address this barrier and to increase the trust Native American communities have with their respective health care system by increasing Native American health care providers,” he says. “The collaborative efforts of the Destination Dental School and gateway program build upon the past successes of each program and set a path forward to address several of those barriers and provide opportunities for participants to further their educational pursuits.”

Allison Wasuli, a junior studying biological sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is among the students who strengthened their application to dental school through the Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program. Dental school is her next step toward a career in dentistry, which she has aspired to since she was 8 years old. Raised in the rural city of Kotzebue, Alaska — a small community of 3,000 people that is mainly accessible by plane — Wasuli recalls only visiting a dentist on a handful of occasions throughout her childhood.

“Not a lot of dentists wants to stay in rural Alaska to help us,” says Wasuli. “I want to become a dentist so that I can come back home to help my family and friends smile more, and to help other kids in the community pursue higher education so that they can come back to help their hometown.”


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