Class of 2022: From UAE to NY, Mina Ibrahim’s path to dentistry was filled with challenges and rewards
Growing up in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, it was Minatallah (Mina) Ibrahim’s own challenges with oral health that drove her to pursue a career in dentistry.
“There was a lack of dental public health where I lived, so I wasn’t conscious of my diet and brushing techniques. I ended up getting a lot of cavities and got bullied—middle school kids can be so relentless,” said Ibrahim. “But I grew a lot from it and became more aware of my own challenges with oral health as well as those of my family. By pursuing dentistry, I felt like I could help them as well as myself while providing guidance to others.”
Ibrahim’s brother came to study at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her family worried about her traveling for her education, but they were more comfortable with her at the same school as her brother. She was accepted and, knowing she eventually wanted to go to dental school, she chose to major in chemistry.
It was during her undergraduate studies that Ibrahim became connected with VCU School of Dentistry through the Undergraduate Student National Dental Association (USNDA) and its parent group at the school, the Student National Dental Association (SNDA).
“USNDA and SNDA focus on promoting and supporting minorities in dentistry,” said Ibrahim. “I participated in several of their workshops and activities, which were fun, but just talking to people and seeing how they feel about the profession and the school was really important.”
Ibrahim participated in the school’s Pre-Dental Day and Impressions Day, which provide hands-on experiences to undergraduate students who are interested in dentistry and learning about life at dental school. She made connections with current students as well as faculty.
She applied to and was accepted at VCU School of Dentistry. It was a challenging transition.
“I’ll never forget the first-year operative course where they literally teach you how to handle the drill and all of the basics of working with your hands. You work with plastic teeth and they expect perfection,” said Ibrahim. “I would stay in the lab until 9 p.m. and sometimes fall asleep in my scrubs and quickly shower and change in the morning before coming back to school the next day. But, it was worth it, because you need those hand skills before you begin working with patients in the clinic.”
As Ibrahim was working to hone her hand skills and absorb the deluge of knowledge that comes during the first few years of dental school, she was also working toward obtaining her U.S. citizenship. On July 4, 2019, she was one of 91 people from 41 countries to participate in a large naturalization ceremony at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
“Receiving my U.S. citizenship was a huge milestone for me. It gave July 4th a new meaning for me; I felt a sense of belonging for the first time as I was congratulated by Congressman Donald McEachin,” said Ibrahim. “I felt the same feeling of achievement as receiving my white coat or graduating, in addition to a sense of relief to finally call where I lived home.”
While Ibrahim was feeling more at-home in the U.S., she still experienced another challenge during her transition into dental school: the lack of African Americans entering the profession.
“Only about 4% of all dentists in the U.S. are Black, and that’s reflected at dental schools. My undergraduate experience was very diverse, but it did get lonely here sometimes,” said Ibrahim. “I have a unique background, I wear a hijab, and sometimes it was tough to navigate that and explain my history and beliefs. I feel like the friends I’ve made have to be the most compassionate people ever, because they might not fully understand my experience but they are always willing to listen and give support.”
Ibrahim became involved with SNDA, serving as the group’s historian and also the historian for her class. She recalls the time surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 as particularly difficult.
“Not everyone is equipped to discuss and deal with issues surrounding race, and there’s no way to please all sides because people have strong opinions,” said Ibrahim.
The school held a large, virtual town-hall style event to discuss the tumultuous social events that were occurring and their impact on members of the school’s community.
“It was probably the biggest meeting at the school that I can remember. Honestly, what stood out to me most was seeing how many people cared even if they didn’t fully understand how to engage the topic. I do feel like progress was made and some positive steps were taken,” said Ibrahim.
One of the outcomes from the town hall and the discussions that followed was the creation of the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which strives to cultivate a welcoming atmosphere and culture of belonging for all students, as well as patients, staff and faculty.
Like many dental students, Ibrahim points to her experience caring for patients as one of the most rewarding aspects of her educational journey.
“Once you enter the clinic and start building relationships with patients, you begin to feel appreciated and see the impact you are making,” said Ibrahim. “Patients trust you, and it’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s so incredibly rewarding. At the end of the day, you get to go home and say, ‘hey, I changed someone’s life.’”
Ibrahim has also felt validation from patients who aren’t used to seeing an African American dentist.
“Recently, a woman came up to me at one of our external rotation sites. She wasn’t my patient, but she looked at me, smiled, complimented me on my nails and the way I talked to my patients, and said, ‘I’m just also so happy to see a Black dentist,’” recalled Ibrahim. “That was so validating for me. I hope that VCU continues to push for recruiting students from all walks of life.”
When she reflects on the faculty that helped her along the way, Ibrahim acknowledges the close connection she’s made with Susie Goolsby, D.D.S., M.S.H.A., associate professor in the Department of General Practice.
“Dr. Goolsby has been a part of my VCU experience since before I started dental school. It’s the comfort that she gives and how much she shows that she believes in you that made the most impact,” said Ibrahim. “I learned so much from working with her in the clinic. She’s an all-around mentor, mother figure, faculty member and friend. I’m really going to miss her.”
Ibrahim plans to continue her education in the one-year General Practice Residency program at Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn, New York. She’s excited about the new environment, the diverse patient population served by the hospital and the way the program is modeled like a private practice.
“The great thing about VCU is their emphasis on clinical education. I feel like I’ve gotten to do a lot of procedures, like implants, that you don’t get to do at other schools,” said Ibrahim. “Dental school is a hard path to go down, but I definitely feel prepared for this next step.”