Students get a taste of dental school in the Summer Academic Enrichment Program
Melvin Leveridge has a connection to dentistry that dates back to when he was 5 years old nervously sitting in a dentist office. Like lots of kids that age, the Kingston, Jamaica, native did not like going to the dentist. In fact, it was one of his biggest fears.
What happened next would not only cure his fear, but also light a spark that would change the course of his life.
“I was crying. The only thing I could think about was getting out. But my dentist responded. She was so gentle with me throughout the whole appointment. It calmed me down,” Leveridge said.
At that appointment, a curiosity was born and an introduction into the field of dentistry was made.
“I really appreciate how gentle she was with me,” Leveridge said. “From that point on, I looked forward to going to every dental appointment. Every time I went to the office, I became more interested in the field and how things are done.”
Now 22, Leveridge, a senior at Old Dominion University, is one of seven students on the dental track of the Summer Academic Enrichment Program (SAEP) at Virginia Commonwealth University.
SAEP is an intensive six-week program that simulates instruction in the first-year of dentistry, medicine, pharmacy and physical therapy professional school.
Admission in the free program is open to college juniors, seniors, graduates and post-baccalaureate students from across the country who are preparing to apply to a professional health sciences school or program. Selected students receive a stipend for food and are housed in VCU residence halls.
Students on the dental track take professional-level dental courses, participate in dental labs, learn interview skills, attend professionalism seminars, and participate in a community service project by providing health screenings to the homeless population in Richmond.
Two standing in a dental exam room in front of an exam chair with a woman in it.
Melvin Leveridge (right) learns how to make dental impressions as a part of the Summer Academic Enrichment Program.
“They are doing things that first-year dental students do,” said Lindsay Smith, pipeline and recruitment program specialist for VCU School of Dentistry. “It’s six weeks full of activities that will give them insight into what dental school is like.”
The program returned in person this summer after being virtual the past two years due to the pandemic.
“We were excited to do this in person again this summer and provide these students with hands-on immersion into the dental field,” Smith said.
For Leveridge, the fast-paced program came with immediate challenges.
“I knew it was going to be rigorous, but the first week or two, it was a bit more than I thought. By the third or fourth week I adjusted well and found what worked and what didn’t,” Leveridge said.
“This program taught me a lot about myself that I probably wouldn’t have known if I wasn’t here. In comparison to my undergrad, it was totally different. The strategies I used to study undergrad didn’t necessarily work here. So, I definitely had to make some changes. It was a very humbling process.”
The pre-professional preparation program not only helps students develop skills, but it also helps them prepare for the competitive dental school admissions process. Smith said approximately 80% of students who participate in the dental track of SAEP enroll in dental school.
“Success is: they get into dental school and they are diversifying the field of dentistry no matter where they are. We would love for them to all come [to VCU] though,” Smith said.
SAEP is one of many Diversity P.A.T.H.S. (Promoting Access To Health Sciences) programs VCU offers through its Division for Student Engagement and Impact. Other P.A.T.H.S. programs include early exposure to health care careers for middle school and high school students.
“Really, the goal of any of these P.A.T.H.S. programs is to increase diversity in the dental field,” Smith said. “So when we think about diversity for these programs, we have race, ethnicity, students who are historically underrepresented, and also first-generation students, students who don’t have family members who are doctors or dentists.”
Nationally, there are large disparities in representation in dentistry. According to the American Dental Association, only 4% of dentists are Black, while approximately 6% are Hispanic. Public health researchers believe this contributes to persistent oral health disparities among communities of color in the U.S.
Leveridge believes that early exposure to his dentist played a major role in his desire to enter the dental field.
“I was inspired by my dentist. She was a role model. I saw myself in her,” Leveridge said. “I was inspired by the connection dentists can have with their patients, how appreciative they are and how much it impacts their lives. That’s what drove me to enter the field because I want to impact people’s lives.”
As Leveridge finishes the Summer Academic Enrichment Program, he is now in the process of applying to dental school. VCU is his No. 1 choice.
“Just being here was amazing. The environment, how supportive the students and faculty were, it made me realize VCU is where I want to go to dental school,” Leveridge said. “If all goes well, I will be here next year.”