The Role of Mentoring on the Road to Becoming a Dentist
I recently completed my last day as a dental assistant. Starting a pre-matriculation in a couple of weeks feels daunting. I’ll be living the “dorm life” for the first time ever — at age 36. In two months, I’ll be starting my journey at University of Mississippi Medical Center toward becoming a dentist.
Here’s some background information about me: I am not what is considered an average student. I am a high school dropout, a single mother of three amazing teenagers. I spent most of my younger years working in a family-owned construction company. I am considered a journeyman plumber and enjoyed working in that profession. There were times when the blue-collar life became too physically demanding, so I sought other forms of employment. I ended up with a license to practice cosmetology, as a nail technician and makeup artist. I also worked in the service industry and in an office as an accounts receivable officer. I mention this because I feel my varied background prepared me well for my journey to become a dentist.
I remember the moment I thought about exploring alternative career options. It was a dreary day, slightly drizzling rain. I was lying on a cardboard box shoulder-deep in a four-foot hole. I was trying to fix a water line that didn’t have a shut-off valve; it had been busted by the ground maintenance crew. I was pumping water out as fast as it is filling up, and my phone rang. It was a member of my crew, wondering if I was bringing lunch. I thought to myself, “There must be something better than this!” As stated, I had tried other professional outlets, yet nothing seemed to stick. At 27, I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Shortly thereafter, my mom asked me to help my sister through a dental assisting course if she paid for me to go. Being dental-phobic, personally, I agreed, only because I wasn’t going to be under the dental drill. We started class, and my sister dropped out halfway through. I like to learn new things, so I completed the six-week course. I decided to try a new profession, and this seemed to be a good place to start (on the opposite side of the handpiece). I shadowed a dental assistant for an amazing dentist and became her patient. I overcame my dental anxiety with their help and patience. I decided during this time to try working in the field.
I ended up getting a job with a retired U.S. Army dentist. It seemed (to me) that I understood a lot of things intuitively. I understood the concept behind extractions from my days in construction. I had worked with acrylic as a nail technician. I understood the color scheme when choosing crowns from studying hair color. I knew the importance of customer service. I also was able to connect to patients with dental anxiety. All my past employments made the transition seem so easy, and I finally felt like I was home.
About two years into assisting, I told the dentist that I worked for, “One day, I’ll be as smart as you!” He stopped me and said, “Sammy, do you know the difference between the guy who became a dentist and the one who didn’t? He showed up for his last class.” I thought to myself, I can do that. I signed up at the junior college for the fall semester. I have been working toward my doctorate since fall 2008. I have worked as a dental assistant while going to school and finished with my Bachelor of Science degree, with a minor in psychology, in 2015. Through all this, I have had the support of amazing dentists who were willing to work with my school schedule and support me mentally, emotionally and even financially. The dentist whom I worked for until recently paid for me to take my Dental Admission Test and gave me a bonus as a good luck gift.
I have been able to call upon the advice of my dental mentors (primarily two) to gain insight into their philosophies in dentistry or business. We have had many insightful conversations about OSHA and HIPAA regulations, as well as the future of dentistry politically. I have seen dentists take on roles such as plumbers, electricians, accountants and computer technicians in order to keep an office open and running. While fixing the clogged suction, my doctor asked me, “Are you sure you want to become a dentist?” I told him again, “I can’t wait!”
I feel I’ll have somewhat of an advantage over my peers due to my time in the dental office. Doc says he sees great things for me in my future as a dentist, and expects me to “hit dental school like a storm”! He recommended that I join an AGD student chapter and work toward becoming president. I do not intend to let him down.
I want to write on the importance of mentorship and feel like the best way to show its value is to tell the story of how a high school-dropout teen mom is now becoming a Doctor of Dental Medicine. I cannot praise my mentors enough for guiding me this far. Because of them, I finally know what I want to be when I grow up, and I am making my dreams come true. I look forward to a future that will make them proud.
Special thanks to Frank Conaway, DMD, MAGD, and Grafton Teets, DDS.